Sam Harris - Mother Nature

A Splendid Answer:

At Gene Expression, I found a link to Edge, where many scientific and other figures were asked the simple question: What have you changed your mind about, and why?

Some writers we know well are there - Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker - and others I hadn't thought about in ages[1], such the chemist Robert Shapiro (he wrote an excellent popular book on origin-of-life theory back in the eighties). Right next to his entry, I found this one by Sam Harris, worth quoting:

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.

Extremely well put. A religious friend of mine once suggested that Man and his works ought, instead, to be considered a part of nature, as much as termite mounds or coral reefs, and while I didn't adopt most of his ideas, that one struck me as very convincing. I remember growing up with this contrary idea that Nature was something fundamentally different from Artifice - that this Nature was in some kind of static, harmonious "balance," that would continue more or less forever if wicked Man did not destroy it. As Harris says:
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.
Perhaps the opposite view has a strong aesthetic appeal - I have always been emotionally attracted to the idea that our problems are the same as the ancients', and the basic human comedy and tragedy will go on as long as the species does - and if Grim tells me true, many thinkers who spend a lot of time experiencing the outdoors directly incline to spiritual ideas, to the idea that thoughts, and feelings, and perhaps some greater Mind than theirs, are eternal and unchanging. Yet in reading the science I do (in popular versions these days; graduate school is long behind), I can't find room for these eternal entities, or an ordering Power in Nature that thinks and feels, and that wanted humans to be as they are, and fixed them.

But there is a beautiful, hopeful side to this. Our coevals are learning, rapidly, more and ever more about how our minds and bodies are put together - and the technology to improve them will come, if not in our lifetimes, perhaps not long after. We've been able to change the form and abilities of our domestic animals through breeding - something much faster, with greater potential, is on the way.
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.
Exactly. Suppose that a team of genetic engineers funded and equipped by a large corporation proceeded to create 10,000 superhuman specimens, supremely intelligent, healthy, naturally hardworking and honest - what would be your response? I would be rejoicing at the thought of all these newcomers might create or discover. Some others, who believe in a Creator, might be troubled at the implications of improving upon His handiwork (though the date suggesting that religiosity itself is heritable should be likewise troubling - if we are judged, in the end, by our beliefs. But theology is flexible, the more thoughtful believers accept a God who can tolerate things they scarce imagined before). (A few small-minded creatures wouldn't get past the naked fear - "They'll outdo me - they'll take my job!") If there's no overarching Order to sustain us "World Without End," there's no overarching Rule to stop us building better lives, better kinds of lives, than have ever existed before.

I come from a civilization far better than my ancestors a few centuries back could imagine - and I think I will die happy, even without descendants, if I expect it will be in better hands, and more vastly improved a century hence than I can hope to imagine.

[1] The author of this opinion might interest some people here, who discuss the merits of wood and plastic in gun butts...the old ways were the way they were for a purpose; and as I argued, roughly, in one of my first comments here, I would rather cultivate the practical spirit of the man who fought with a sword of bronze (because that was the best weapon available) than to try to fight with his actual weapons. But we have talked this over before.

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