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Machines Like Us

Love drugs and the perils of human enhancement, part I

Tuesday, 24 July 2012
by Massimo Pigliucci

The latest issue of Philosophy Now features an interesting collection of articles on human enhancement, with articles arguing that the approach is “essential” to humans in order to avoid catastrophes, that it can be used to extend youthfulness, and so on. There are also a couple of essays that are more cautious about the likely success, and even perils, of enhancement, so the full package (five entries) makes for stimulating reading. Here I want to focus on the contribution by Brian D. Earp, on “Love and other drugs” (link here, but you have to be a subscriber, which is definitely worth it for the price). Even though I find myself in disagreement with the author’s thesis, it is a well thought out piece, which can serve as a template for other discussions of the pros and cons of enhancement.

Earp begins by setting up the problem: marriage, he says, has been a mixed bag as an institution, at least in part because of the tendency of people (not only men) to cheat. The words of the immortal American satirist H.L. Mencken immediately come to mind: “Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who would want to live in an institution?” Indeed.

Earp quotes the usual statistics about half of all marriages failing (i.e., ending up in divorce), and the fact that even the majority of those that don’t fail do not present a particularly pretty picture: “only some fraction can be fairly described as ‘happy’ – and possibly none at all reach the heights of connubial bliss we read about in fairy tales,” which leads him to ask what could be done to address the problem. Of course, an immediate objection is that it doesn’t make much sense to use fairy tales as standards to strive for in real life, but we’ll pass on that one for now.

The article becomes meaty when the author suggests an analysis of the problem in terms of three contrasting factors: human nature, values, and cultural environment. (To be fair, Earp does acknowledge that cheating is far from being the only reason why marriages fall apart, but he focuses on this aspect of the problem because there appears to be a solution in terms of biological enhancement. More in a moment.)

The idea is essentially that human beings are naturally non-monogamous (meaning that our ancestors in relatively deep evolutionary time probably weren’t), that monogamy however is an important value in contemporary society, and that modern life allows for more means of cheating than ever (effective contraceptives, ease of travel, ease of social connection via electronic platforms, etc.). The tension among these three factors, according to Earp, makes for a perfect storm that has led to increased cheating and therefore to increased failure of marriages.

Before we take up the author’s analysis of what can be done about this, of course, we need to pause and see how convincing his way of setting up the problem actually is. I will cast aside for now my usual reservations about too easy evolutionary psychological generalizations about what is and is not natural for human beings, and accept that particular premise as reasonable enough for the sake of discussion. I may even agree that modern technologies multiply people’s chances of cheating, though this probably means that now women have more such chances than they used to compared to men, because we (in the West, at least) live in a society where males are thankfully much less dominating than they used to be. In 17th century England, as Earp acknowledges, cheating was widespread, but it was mostly done by men, who held much of the power (and therefore many of the opportunities to cheat) in that society.

I’m a bit less convinced that monogamy is as much of a monolithic value as Earp seems to suggest. First, there are and have been non-monogamous human societies, which means that people can accept other ways of setting up their relationships. Second, Western society in recent times has explored all sorts of alternatives to monogamy that have been actually practiced (by a minority, to be sure, but still), including the current trend (at least in New York!) of polyamory (which, interestingly, is being facilitated and has become more acceptable precisely through the kind of online social platforms that Earp cites).

Moreover, I am not even sure that there is a “problem,” or at least a problem worth deploying biological enhancement to fix. Human beings are complex social animals, whose character and behavior change throughout their lifetime, and perhaps we simply shouldn’t expect more than a certain percentage of marriages to last ‘till death do the participants part.

So the situation is a bit more complicated than a simple tension among the three factors analyzed in the Philosophy Now article. In the second (and last) installment we’ll proceed to the core of Earp’s analysis, which begins with an examination of what would happen if we tinkered with each one of the three factors in turn.