03 January 2008

We Are a Force of Nature

Having just signed out, I am now signing in again, since I have found I have something to say in response to this article by Sam Harris:

Mother Nature is not our Friend

I posted this as a response on the Richard Dawkins . net site, but think it bears repetition here:

There are so many points in this article where I find myself disagreeing with Sam Harris.

His first and prime error of logic is that he doesn't define "Nature" and in fact uses the term in two senses, inclusive and exclusive of humans. I take the view that humans are part of nature.

In his first paragraph he talks about "the wisdom of nature" and about "real boundaries between the natural and the artificial", but the artificial, that which is made by humans, is itself part of nature.

He cites destructive events like asteroid strikes as being acts of nature, which they are, but so would be attempts by humans to deflect them.

He says that we are tempted to think that "we, as homo sapiens, have arrived at some well-defined position in the natural order"; surely we have, this is a perfectly respectable conclusion.

He says that "There was, for instance, no first member of the human species", well that can only mean that he is using a definition of "human species" that is very indefinite. It is perfectly reasonable to draw a line somewhere and say lets call people from this stage on "humans" and those before "prehumans" and to specify what the essential characteristics of humans are, in case there should be a change in future.

He says "Life is a continuous flux". This is very old and outdated philosophy. My understanding is that life is discontinuous. Genetic changes take place by digital mutations. Nowhere is it continuous.

He says "Nothing in the natural order demands that our descendants resemble us in any particular way." In that case, by definition, they will not be "humans" - we could perhaps call them "transhumans".

He asks: "Will this be a good thing?" The answer to that is obvious, for humans it will not be a good thing. For transhumans it will be a good thing.

He asks "What is the alternative to us taking charge of our biological destiny." against which he counterposes: "Might we be better off just leaving things to the wisdom of Nature?" This is a false dichotomy. We can choose to deefend our humanity against being changed to something non-human. It is just a question of deciding what we consider to be truly human features, or the best human features, that we want to preserve.

His classifying himself as "disabled" because he cannot reason mathematics like Einstein, compose music like Bach, or play golf like Woods, is just perversion of language (I presume for humorous effect).

He says: "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." This assumes mistakenly that there is such a thing as "optimal" for being adapted to all environments. Our optimality resides in being "adaptable" to many different environments by employing such things as space suits, diving suits, fur coats, bikinis, etc.

He claims "Many people think this project" [I think he means genetic modification of humans] "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?" Here once again he divorces us humans from nature. We are a force of nature ourselves. We are a force of nature that is in many respects out of control. We ned to gain greater self-control, for instance in population growth.

He concludes: "Mother Nature is not now, nor has she ever been, looking out for us." But we are part of nature, and we are capable of looking out for us. We should be looking out for us humans in as rational and scientific and careful a way as possible. We should also be looking out for the rest of nature, of which we are a part, and on which we depend, since we are the only part of nature capable of so doing.