On (Being) “Better than Human” — Part 2

I ended my last post by identifying what I take to be an important methodological issue with Allen Buchanan’s pro-enhancement argument in his recent (2011) book entitled Better than Human: The Promise and Perils of Enhancing Ourselves. I want pick up on that point in this post, before moving on to other points of analysis in subsequent posts.

To recap briefly: for Buchanan, addressing ethical concerns regarding the “enhancement enterprise” requires, among other things, a consideration of what human nature is like. And the answer to that question, in turn, is to be found in the findings and pronouncements of evolutionary biology, as set forth in the “Darwinian worldview.” More to the point, for Buchanan, the only source of “evidence” relevant to answering the question of human nature is evolutionary biology. In other words, Buchanan’s approach here is significantly epistemically constrained—only certain sources of knowledge are considered legitimate for purposes of examining morally the enhancement enterprise. This methodological move is significant, for it has the effect of ruling out of court, from the outset, other potentially valuable sources of information regarding human nature, including, particularly, theological reflection.

The obvious question to ask here is: why accept this epistemic constraint in the first place? Presumably, a significant part of the reason for Buchanan’s insistence on this epistemic restriction is another major methodological commitment of his, to which I drew attention in my earlier posts—namely, his commitment to framing his argument in strictly secular, non-religious terms. As I have noted, Buchanan indicates (on one occasion) that he is adopting in this book a “non-religious” approach in order to advance arguments that can be “accepted” by non-religious as well as religious people. Given that methodological commitment, Buchanan presumably views the pronouncements of evolutionary biology—products of the “Darwinian worldview” to which contemporary science is (purportedly) committed, and in terms of which Buchanan seeks to couch his overall argument—as being beyond reproach, evidentially (and therefore epistemically) speaking.

What, then, does Buchanan think “modern evolutionary biology” actually tells us about human nature? In the book’s second chapter, entitled “Why Evolution Isn’t Good Enough,” Buchanan goes to great lengths to argue against what he terms a “pre-Darwinian” view of evolution, according to which “evolution is like a master engineer”— the idea that “organisms are like engineering masterpieces: beautifully designed, harmonious, finished products that are stable and durable (if we leave them alone)” (p. 27). If the “master engineer” analogy is correct, of course, it would seem to imply that we ought not to attempt to change what that “master engineer” has produced. As Buchanan acknowledges, “[i]f that’s what we are like, then biomedical enhancement is reckless indeed. Genetic enhancement—seen as an attempt to change the master design itself—seems especially ill-conceived. The master engineer analogy, if it is accurate, provides a strong augment against genetic enhancement and perhaps against biomedical enhancement generally” (pp. 27-28).

But this analogy, Buchanan says, is mistaken. Instead, he argues, “evolution is more like a morally blind, fickle, tightly shackled tinkerer” (p. 29). I will have more to say in a subsequent post regarding exactly what Buchanan means by this proposed alternative metaphor. For now, suffice it to say that the basic idea is that there’s no good reason to think that “natural selection” is currently doing a good job or that the results of evolution are “good”—either in the sense of being “beneficial” to us, or in terms of what we value as human beings—and therefore ought not to be interfered with. Evolution is, instead, more accurately thought of as being “morally blind”; the processes of natural selection are, more often than not, “nasty, brutish, and long”—displaying utter indifference to human suffering and quality of life. Moreover, rather than being a “master engineer,” evolution is more properly thought of as being a “fickle, tightly shackled tinkerer”–it operates inefficiently and frequently fails to achieve “optimal” design changes. Ultimately, Buchanan contends, “we have to steadfastly resist the common tendency to think that the latest product of the evolutionary process is the best, either biologically speaking or in terms of human values. We can’t say we are the best in either sense, and that’s why we should take the possibility of biomedical enhancement seriously” (pp. 47-48).

The bulk of Chapter 2 is devoted to defending and exploring the implications of accepting this metaphor for evolution over against the “master engineer” metaphor. A discussion of the specifics of Buchanan’s argument here will have to await another post. For now, what I want to emphasize is the conclusion Buchanan draws from this exploration—namely, that “[h]ow we think about evolution—or, if you prefer, nature—makes all the difference to how we should think about enhancement. Interfering with the work of a master engineer is one thing; selectively intervening in the work of a morally blind, fickle, tightly shackled tinkerer is quite another” (p. 29).

Or, as he puts it later in this chapter,

[t]he main point is that to come to grips with the challenges of biomedical enhancement, we need to consider it from the standpoint of evolutionary biology. Remaining stuck in the rosy old, pre-Darwinian view of nature stacks the deck against biomedical enhancement. As we’ll see in later chapters, there are a number of reasons to worry about biomedical enhancement, but the risk of damaging the work of the master engineer of evolution isn’t one of them (p. 51).

Now, to be clear: I don’t want to attempt here to litigate the creation-evolution debate—such a task would go well beyond what can be accomplished in a single blog post (or series, for that matter!). In particular, I do not intend in this post to delve into the disputes among adherents of non-theistic evolution, theistic evolution, and creationism (whether of the “old earth” or “young earth” variety). Rather, the key point I want to make here is that Buchanan’s claims about the evidentiary value of looking at (the products of) evolutionary biology actually cuts both ways, undermining his own argument as well as the position against which he argues. Buchanan wants to say that because the results of natural selection are best characterized as being, to borrow Tennyson’s famous phrase, “red in tooth and claw,” therefore we cannot say whether or not evolution is currently “doing a good job,” and therefore we cannot argue against the enhancement enterprise on the basis of an a priori assumption of a “pre-Darwinian,” “teleological” view of nature according to which our current biological condition is good and thus ought not to be (intentionally) altered. Fair enough. The problem for Buchanan now is, if the results of evolutionary biology are the only source for relevant data concerning “human nature,” this means that we also cannot appeal to evolutionary biology to argue in favor of the enhancement enterprise either. For simply looking at “the way we are” now biologically—whether that is understood as the product of unguided evolutionary processes, or the result of guided (“theistic”) evolutionary processes, or even the result of direct, special creation not involving evolutionary processes—will not be sufficient, by itself, to tell us how we ought to be biologically. After all, if our current biophysiological constitution is the result of “blind” evolutionary processes, then it is nothing more than a contingent historical accident—merely the result of unthinking, unknowing selective pressures, the consequences of which may or may not be “good” for us, and which certainly cannot be said to be the way things are “supposed to be,” in any meaningful sense of that phrase. If, on the other hand, our current biophysiological constitution is the result either of guided (“theistic”) evolutionary processes, or the result of direct, special creation—both of which would imply an intentional “design,” at least at the outset—we have no way of knowing, simply by observing our current state, whether and to what extent that state is in accordance with that original “design.” For all we know, simply through observation alone, our current condition may be very different than what was originally intended.

What these considerations highlight is the need for a broader normative framework within which to understand the significance of our current biophysiological condition and the implications, if any, that might flow from that state. We need some way of determining (a) whether or not our current biophysiological state is best understood as being a good, bad, or indifferent state of affairs; (b) whether or not attempting to “enhance” that state would be a good, bad, or indifferent course of action; and, accordingly, (c) how specific means of “enhancement” ought to be evaluated morally, in light of (a) and (b). Significantly, none of these questions can be answered simply by observing our current biophysiological condition.

To that end, theological reflection—and, specifically, Christian theological reflection—would seem to be, at the very least, a legitimate candidate for such a normative framework within which to think about and to evaluate the “enhancement enterprise.” Christian theology, in particular, proposes a coherent set of answers to such questions as who we are, how we got here, and where we are going—placing human beings in subordination to a God who designed, created, and sustains the universe and all that is in it, ordering it to His ends and for His purposes—thereby embedding human beings within the bounds of certain circumscribed limits that, arguably, are not rightly transgressed. Spelling out the details of this framework is beyond the scope of this post. The key point for present purposes is that this is the sort of framework that is needed to answer the relevant questions about the “enhancement enterprise”—crucial questions that a simple appeal to the “Darwinian worldview” cannot answer.

This is not to suggest that the Christian worldview is (necessarily) the only possible framework within which to think about these issues. Indeed, there may be numerous other possible such frameworks. The key point I want to emphasize here is that in limiting the legitimate sources for reflection on the enhancement enterprise to only that which can be said to fall within the purview of the “Darwinian worldview,” Buchanan is needlessly—indeed, one might argue, unfairly—excluding the sorts of resources that might be able to address the kinds of central questions about the enhancement enterprise that the Darwinian worldview is incapable of addressing in its own terms.


Works Cited:

Buchanan, A. (2011). Better than Human: The Promise and Perils of Enhancing Ourselves (Philosophy in Action Series). New York: Oxford University Press.


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Susan Haack
Susan Haack

As I read your blog, Chris, three thoughts came to mind: 1)In our search for knowledge and truth, if our search is epistemically constrained,the result will not be truth at all–at least not the whole truth–but a partial or delusory truth at best–an unstable structure on which to build the edifice of a worldview; 2)The truth being sought is not a truth concerning mere biophysical entities, but the truth of moral beings whose lives are imbued with value and meaning, whose source cannot be a morally blind process (I am reminded of a book I just finished–“Consciousness: Confessions of a… Read more »

Steve Phillips

Your discussion brings to mind Alvin Plantinga’s argument that there is an internal inconsistency if a belief that the theory of unguided evolution is true. He has said that the cognitive processes one would expect to see as the result of unguided evolution would be ones that promote survival, but would not necessarily be cognitive processes that would identify what was true. Therefore believing that the theory of unguided evolution is true undermines thinking that we are capable of knowing the theory is true.

Mark McQuain
Mark McQuain

John Harris has a similar problem with the title of his book, “Enhancing Evolution”. If Man is the product of blind chance plus time, by what metric or from which vantage point can it be said that any machination by Man is “enhancing” this blind chance plus time process. Both Harris and Buchanan want to speak about moral direction while denying any moral reference system that would make a determination of direction possible. In physics, the difference between speed (a scalar) and velocity (a vector) is that the later is fixed within a reference coordinate system, making the concept of… Read more »