Friday, January 25, 2008

Sam Harris astounds me again!

I'm reposting this in its entirety from The Edge's annual question: "What have you changed your mind about?" I know I'm a bit late to this party, but I had a great deal of thinking to do before I knew where I stood. At first, when I read Sam's response, I was shocked, disagreeing completely. But then again, I thought that way at first about his characterization of moderate Christians. Essentially, he argues that moderate Christians

"by their lingering attachment to the unique divinity of Jesus, protect the faith of fundamentalists from public scorn. Christian liberals — who aren't sure what they believe but just love the experience of going to church occasionally — deny the moderates a proper collision with scientific rationality. And in this way centuries have come and gone without an honest word being spoken about God in our society."

EDIT: After I posted this, I read an amazing post at Apostate's Chapel that you should all read about why atheists refuse to leave religion alone.

However, the more I think and reflect on Sam's ideas, the more convincing I find them. I was automatically reacting against them because they are so radically different from conventional wisdom, or at least conventional sensibilities. The concept he expresses below, that "Mother Nature is Not Our Friend" is terribly important to understand. I had been disgusted with the attitude of arrogance and entitlement that seems to come with the differing strains of religion, without realizing that my own eye held a similar beam: the assumption that "natural" is the same thing as "the best". Now that we have developed the tools to shape our own genetic and physiological destiny (no thanks to those who attempt to quash science in the name of religion, or more vaguely, "ethics"). The question is no longer, "should we?" but "why shouldn't we?" By challenging the base assumption that nature wants humans to survive, or that we have some special place in the cosmos, Sam forces us to rethink all our assumptions about gene therapy, cloning, stem cell research, climate change, and the ethical issues surround them. Enjoy:

Neuroscience Researcher; Author, Letter to a Christian Nation

Mother Nature is Not Our Friend

Like many people, I once trusted in the wisdom of Nature. I imagined that there were real boundaries between the natural and the artificial, between one species and another, and thought that, with the advent of genetic engineering, we would be tinkering with life at our peril. I now believe that this romantic view of Nature is a stultifying and dangerous mythology.

Every 100 million years or so, an asteroid or comet the size of a mountain smashes into the earth, killing nearly everything that lives. If ever we needed proof of Nature's indifference to the welfare of complex organisms such as ourselves, there it is. The history of life on this planet has been one of merciless destruction and blind, lurching renewal.

The fossil record suggests that individual species survive, on average, between one and ten million years. The concept of a "species" is misleading, however, and it tempts us to think that we, as homo sapiens, have arrived at some well-defined position in the natural order. The term "species" merely designates a population of organisms that can interbreed and produce fertile offspring; it cannot be aptly applied to the boundaries between species (to what are often called "intermediate" or "transitional" forms). There was, for instance, no first member of the human species, and there are no canonical members now. Life is a continuous flux. Our nonhuman ancestors bred, generation after generation, and incrementally begat what we now deem to be the species homo sapiens — ourselves. There is nothing about our ancestral line or about our current biology that dictates how we will evolve in the future. Nothing in the natural order demands that our descendants resemble us in any particular way. Very likely, they will not resemble us. We will almost certainly transform ourselves, likely beyond recognition, in the generations to come.

Will this be a good thing? The question presupposes that we have a viable alternative. But what is the alternative to our taking charge of our biological destiny? Might we be better off just leaving things to the wisdom of Nature? I once believed this. But we know that Nature has no concern for individuals or for species. Those that survive do so despite Her indifference. While the process of natural selection has sculpted our genome to its present state, it has not acted to maximize human happiness; nor has it necessarily conferred any advantage upon us beyond the capacity raise the next generation to child-bearing age. In fact, there may be nothing about human life after the age of forty (the average lifespan until the 20th century) that has been selected by evolution at all. And with a few exceptions (e.g. the gene for lactose tolerance), we probably haven't adapted to our environment much since the Pleistocene.

But our environment and our needs — to say nothing of our desires — have changed radically in the meantime. We are in many respects ill-suited to the task of building a global civilization. This is not a surprise. From the point of view of evolution, much of human culture, along with its cognitive and emotional underpinnings, must be epiphenomenal. Nature cannot "see" most of what we are doing, or hope to do, and has done nothing to prepare us for many of the challenges we now face.

These concerns cannot be waved aside with adages like, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." There are innumerable perspectives from which our current state of functioning can be aptly described as "broke." Speaking personally, it seems to me that everything I do picks out some point on a spectrum of disability: I was always decent at math, for instance, but this is simply to say that I am like a great mathematician who has been gored in the head by a bull; my musical ability resembles that of a Mozart or a Bach, it is true, though after a near fatal incident on skis; if Tiger Woods awoke from surgery to find that he now possessed (or was possessed by) my golf-swing, rest assured that a crushing lawsuit for medical malpractice would be in the offing.

Considering humanity as a whole, there is nothing about natural selection that suggests our optimal design. We are probably not even optimized for the Paleolithic, much less for life in the 21st century. And yet, we are now acquiring the tools that will enable us to attempt our own optimization. Many people think this project is fraught with risk. But is it riskier than doing nothing? There may be current threats to civilization that we cannot even perceive, much less resolve, at our current level of intelligence. Could any rational strategy be more dangerous than following the whims of Nature? This is not to say that our growing capacity to meddle with the human genome couldn't present some moments of Faustian over-reach. But our fears on this front must be tempered by a sober understanding of how we got here. Mother Nature is not now, nor has she ever been, looking out for us.


  1. BJ:
    Thanks for your nice complement of my post. Thanks also for this excerpt from Sam Harris. While I disagree with some of his positions overall, I think his position in this post has a lot of merit. Humans frequently think, talk and behave as if we exist outside of nature. When we persist in doing so, we often created real problems for ourselves by trying to impose unrealistic expectations on the world.

    Harris is a very articulate man with lots of interesting ideas. I look forward to seeing much more from him in the future.

  2. Chaplain-
    Thank you for the brilliant post on your blog. I appreciate the commentary and agree with it. Thanks again.


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