In the Epicurean discussion group Garden of Epicurus a post was made asking reaction to this lecture by Professor Julian Savulescu. As a Facebook comment proved to be inadequate for the task, here are my reactions to issues raised by the lecture's Part One.
Please, first watch the video here
03:21 Concept of "fit"
Fitness is defined strangely. The social world is not an external force acting on us. We are the social species, and so the social world isn't entirely external (though some of it may be).
When quoting statistics it's important to make clear how they were formulated. "Half of all marriages end in divorce" is a pretty common statistic used. But note the 'all' in there, because the divorce rate of first marriage is much lower than second etc.. Statistics are a dangerous weapon.
05:45 Inability to stay in a relationship
Breaking of relationships is not necessarily a bad thing, especially in societies where the survival of the pair (or their offspring) is not dependent on a relationship. Sometimes it's better for a pair to separate than to stay together.
Monogamy for the sake of monogamy is a wrong criteria for the 'fitness' of humans. It's a bit unclear if Prof. Savulescu has this criteria in mind... but such unclearness is in itself a flaw in the argument.
06:17 Unchanged biology and psychology
Our genetics have changed in the last 100 000 years. For instance, lactose tolerance has arisen within the last 10 000. While I'm not a geneticist, the layman's reading of the research reveals this statement as an error.
06:20 Longer lifespan
Average human lifespan is another statistic that can lead one astray. This effect is due to reduction in infant mortality by technology (which will be attacked later in the lecture). It was quite possible to live a long time in our hunter-gathered past... if one survived childhood, that is.
Ten marriages for the women by the age of 30? One has to wonder if this is a typo, or perhaps there is something else affecting these numbers rather than death of a partner. But whatever the cause, this doesn't support the claim of 15 years.
07:30 Long-term relationships
There is circumstantial evidence that this statement is not true: the grandmother-hyphotesis. Children who had a living grandmother were more likely to survive than those without. While this isn't direct evidence of long-term pairing, it doesn't seem unreasonable to assume that long-term pairing would have similar beneficial effects, and would therefore be selected for.
07:56 Average length of relationships
Note that these are all relationships, not only those that result in children.
08:00 Study of non-human animals
Here we get the first glimpse of the biological determinism that pollutes this lecture. While we get much knowledge from the study of non-human animals, it's vital to remember that we are human animals.
The voles in question are fascinating creatures, but their mating needs are so removed from even a homo erectus that they are almost meaningless for a homo sapiens.
08:57 Biological basis of relationships
From the analysis of one-gene effects, the jump to the conclusion that we should mess around with it, is pure foolishness. Prof. Savulescu doesn't make this jump explicitly, but the implication is clear from the context.
Life-long pair-bonding would be a disaster for humans. Non-human animals can get away with it, because their sphere of needs, desires, and behavior is not the same as ours. This kind of proposal can be refuted with two words: domestic abuse. Imagine what this would mean in an unbreakable pair-bond...
Biological determinism is a carcinogen for ideas.
10:49 Increasing fitness for love
For humans this kind of hormonal intervention would be another disaster. Anything artificial wouldn't be permanent, and most likely would lead to unanticipated consequences. Even when we leave aside the social and ethical questions (which would be enough), and take into account only the possible biological ones, the conclusion is that we should not do these interventions.
For example, any such intervention would have to continue indefinitely, because we cannot be certain that the effect is permanent. And if a discontinuation would cause the removal of the effect, the intervention could not be started again, because the memory would remain.
For a layman in brain chemistry, it also seems doubtful that such interventions wouldn't lead to the development of resistance. And resistance to oxytocin would be a terrible thing.
Predicting the future is utter foolishness. Especially when predicting it to this extent. Why is it that the Singularity is usually predicted to happen after the predictor has died? It's also curious that almost no one predicts a benevolent Singularity...
Like the human-level human intelligence didn't happen suddenly with a bang, it's probable that human-level artificial intelligence won't do so either. Most likely it will be a continuum of intelligences. (Note: this paragraph was utter foolishness...)
12:09 Virginia Tech shooting
One of Prof. Savulescu's hypotheses is that technology is dangerous and that we will have to (and should) limit it. As a proof of this he offers the awful mass murder in Virginia Tech.
But this tragedy offers a counter-argument too. In fact, technology was already limited at Virginia Tech: it was a gun-free zone. A heroic Holocaust Survivor was killed because of this limitation.
Technology isn't inherently evil, whether it's weapons or power plants, and we will never effect absolute, global limitations on potentially harmful technology. Even to wish for such a fantasy is nonsense.
13:23 Super-lethal smallpox
One is not an expert in diseases nor in biological warfare, but if one doesn't take fiction seriously it would appear that this is as unlikely as a homebrew nuke. Most likely these things require scores of people and millions of dollars. And anyone trying it in their kitchen would only kill themselves in the process.
And unlike Prof. Savulescu states, it most definitely is high technology... at least today.
Note also the demonization of the Internet. "Scientist bought polio over the interwebs!" Anyone who spends time online will know that everything is on the Web. It's no more scary than mail order or the market were in their time... and demonized too, btw.
If you make sociopaths (psychopaths in the vernacular), your standard... you have already lost. Against the insane there is no foolproof protection. Unless you are ready to ban every thing, including being a human.
Whatever we have (from a sharpened stick to nuclear technology) can, has, and will be used to harm others. What we can and should do is to take reasonable precautions against such use. Not go insane ourselves in banning potentially beneficial technology.
14:50 Extreme ends?
The human condition is a continuum. In one extreme we find sociopaths, but what we find in the other is left out of this lecture completely. The benevolent view of this omission is that it's a rhetorical trick...
So, what do we find at the other extreme? We find people like Florence Nightingale (and if you don't know who she is... shame on you). We find Alvin M. Weinberg. We find Jean Henri Dunant... And we find Epicurus.
75 percent of inmates have antisocial personality disorder? The war on drugs has made virtually certain that this statistic is false.
Perhaps prison causes such a disorder? Correlation is not causation...
17:00 WMDs and sociopaths
Is it true that a sociopath would seek such destruction? It doesn't appear to be the case (though this, too, is a layman's opinion). While they are capable of terrible destruction, this is done through means that offer immediate satisfaction of twisted desires, not destruction for the sake of destruction.
Also the layman would question their capability to invest the time and energy needed to pursue the ability to create diseases or nuclear weapons. They are, contrary to Prof. Savulescu, highly technical fields, requiring years of study and hard work.
17:35 Groups of 150
In pre-history humans interacted with only about 150 others, and had kin-selection and reciprocal altruism within that group, and xenophobia towards strangers. While evolutionarily this is true, it's not true in our modern world.
Our complex minds make a mockery of simplistic interpretations of human nature. Again it's biological determinism that raises its ugly head. If this assumption were true, modern civilization (since the Egyptians) would have been impossible... and yet here we are. How is this possible?
We extend reciprocal altruism in ever expanding circles, as put forth by Peter Singer. It's more beneficial for us to live in harmony with strangers than to be in eternal war with them. Evolutionary success in groups of 150 produced a brain capable of living in groups of millions.
We are not slaves of our past.
20:17 Failing to help
It seems that, like Peter Singer, Prof. Savulescu goes overboard in the spreading of responsibility. Consider this: Right this minute you committed a violent crime... because somewhere in your country there was one, and you didn't stop it. So, you belong in jail.
Obviously, this example is absurd, in the same manner as Prof. Savulescu's insistence that you are guilty of harming by not aiding. But why is this so?
Because you are human. You have finite time, energy, and/or funds to run the world by yourself. And this is what would be required to fulfill the 'morality' demanded in this lecture. No human can live under such 'morality'! Even after you'd given as aid everything but 2 dollars a day, you'd still be better-off than someone else that you'd have to help.
Inhuman morality is not for humans, and as such must be rejected.
However, since life is the greatest value, you should help others. It's the good thing to do. Just remember that your life is a value, too.
25:24 Solutions to the environmental crisis
It is undeniable that we have an environmental crisis on our hands, and that it's human-caused. The question is how do we solve it.
Prof. Savulescu offers the solutions of not eating meat and limiting our use of technology. The true answer is that by limiting our technology we have made the crisis worse and extended it. And by government subsidy we have made animals a liability.
We have to use technology to solve a technological problem: How do we get off oil?
The answer is called the Lifter (LFTR): Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor. You probably haven't heard of it... because we have been limiting our technology like advocated in this lecture.
Lifter is brought to us by Alvin Weinberg, et al. In fact, the same people that gave us the Light Water Reactor. They were smart people, and realized that LWR produces waste that is darned hard to get rid off. So, they made a better reactor. And I mean that they had a working Lifter. In the 1960s!
Without going into all the details, there is one overwhelming benefit to Lifter: It can use nuclear waste as fuel... and burn it all away.
Exactly how has limiting our technology benefited us so far? And will it serve us any better in the future? Think on this...
Let's talk animals!
The environmental problem with eating meat is not that we raise animals, but how we do it. The solution to this is definitely low-tech: Planned Rotational Grazing. Our food-animals are herbivores, so let them eat grass. And don't feed them subsidized grain...
Rotational Grazing was developed in Africa precisely because it's low-tech and suitable for grasslands. It's designed to avoid the problems of over-grazing by moving the animals regularly and allowing the land (and plants) to recover before the animals are rotated back.
When we work with nature wisely, we turn meat into an asset instead of a liability...
What wasn't touched on in this lecture was that current agriculture as a whole is totally dependent on fossil fuels, from plowing the fields to the fertilizers. The answer there is called Permaculture. Read about it.
26:30 Liberal Democracy
The problem with democracy is that it's an awful way to run a society... the problem with all other ways is that they are worse!
It was shocking to hear this part of the lecture. What Prof. Savulescu is advocating here is a dictatorship of some kind. And any dictator would first shoot all academics and especially all philosophers.
Liberal Democracy is the only sustainable and moral way to run any government larger than a family. If we wish to be ethical, there is no alternative.
There is nothing inherently wrong with Tit-for-Tat. When it's guided by a proper ethical framework, it truly is a superior mode. A crucial part of such a framework is an understanding what true Justice means. And that is the Epicurean concept of justice.
Part Two (coming soon)