“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves,” Cassius says in the Shakespeare play Julius Caesar. Julian Savules, a professor of practical ethics at the University of Oxford, couldn’t agree more.
He tells Bryan Walsh, a contributing author for Medium, “Our morality and our moral dispositions evolved to stop us from killing ourselves within our small group and to make sure that we cooperated with our small group. But they didn’t evolve to provide benefits to strangers or to deal with large numbers of individuals at risk. All those features mean we’re particularly badly placed to deal with large statistical threats like the use of biological weapons or global collective action problems like climate change. We lack the moral capacities to deal with the sort of world we’ve created for ourselves.”
Can We Science Our Way Out Of This?
Many people believe humanity can “science its way out” of a climate change catastrophe by capturing carbon dioxide and pumping it deep underground into abandoned oil and gas wells or sequestering it at the bottom of the ocean. Others want to put various and sundry space junk into the atmosphere to limit the amount of sunlight that strikes the earth’s surface to cool the planet — sort of like the awnings my old Irish grandmother used to keep out the heat of the day.
Savules has a different idea. What we need are better people, he says. “I think that we’re at this point where we need to look at every avenue. And one of those avenues is not just looking to political reform — which we should be doing – but also to be looking at ourselves. We’re the ones who cause these problems. We’re the ones who make these choices. We’re the ones who create these political systems. No one wants to acknowledge the elephant in the room, and that is that human beings may be the problem, not the political system.”
“There’s this growing mismatch between our cognitive and technological powers and our moral capacity to use them,” he insists. Genetic engineering that would create people with a propensity for a higher degree of moral and ethical conduct will be required if humanity is to go beyond its inbred barriers that limit people’s ability to think beyond the short term and work together for the common good. “We have to decide what kind of people we want,” Savules says. “It’s not something we’ve begun to embrace because we have this sort of liberal neutrality, this relativism about morality that says, ‘Wow, we can’t really decide which moralities are better than the others.’”
Robert Sparrow, a bioethicist at Monash University in Australia, disagrees. He believes “problems involved in applying [moral bioenhancement] to ‘hundreds of millions’ of people” necessarily presumes the existence of an authoritarian system of government and an absence of personal freedom.
Oddly enough, Savules is currently the co-director at an Oxford research program that is examining the social issues pertaining to geo-engineering. The research is based on two beliefs. One is that climate change will one day present a clear existential threat to humanity. The second is that — in the absence of some sort of genetic reprogramming that alters normal human behavior — we “will be unable or unwilling to enact the political and personal changes needed to turn things around. [Geo-engineering is a radical and second-best solution to human failure,” Bryan Walsh writes.
The Confirmation Effect
Why are humans so bad at identifying long term threats and taking appropriate group action to deal with them effectively? Part of the problem is a phenomenon the scientific community labels “confirmation bias.” Writing in the current issue of The Atlantic, Ben Yagoda describes it as our tendency to “look for evidence confirming what we already think or suspect, to view facts and ideas we encounter as further confirmation, and to discount or ignore any piece of evidence that seems to support an alternate view. Confirmation bias shows up most blatantly in our current political divide, where each side seems unable to allow that the other side is right about anything.”
The best recent example is contained in a 2005 report prepared for US President George W. Bush following the US invasion of Iraq. “When confronted with evidence that indicated Iraq did not have [weapons of mass destruction], analysts tended to discount such information. Rather than weighing the evidence independently, analysts accepted information that fit the prevailing theory and rejected information that contradicted it.”
The Difference Between Beliefs And Knowledge
Does that sound familiar? Large numbers of Americans completely reject the notion of climate change despite the millions of words written about it and the thousands of photos showing melting of the polar ice caps, raging wild fires everywhere around the globe, and rising sea levels. How can that be? “Confirmation bias” is responsible for a large part of it.
But how to convince people the threat is real — and getting “realer” every day? Doing a little light reading this past weekend, I delved into a book called The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. I was startled to learn that no less a personage than Aristotle once believed the brain was basically a cooling device — like the radiator in a 1964 Chevy Impala. The blood in our bodies was heated by the heart, then pumped to the brain where some of that heat was dissipated before being carried on to the other organs of the body.
It’s an excellent theory, one that ranks right up there with the Greek myth about the Helios, the Sun God who rode across the sky every day aboard a fiery golden chariot pulled by a team of white horses. As Mark Twain once observed, “What you don’t know won’t hurt you near as much as what you do know that t’ain’t true.”
Doing The Right Thing
If the choice is between massive geo-engineering projects designed to prevent the destruction of the Earth by human action or genetically engineering better humans who will be better at acting in concert for the betterment of the species, then there is little to be optimistic about. Both are based on a belief that humans are incapable of doing the right thing. Current events, in which megalomaniacs fight to solidify their grip on power in nations around the world, do not bode well for the future.
Is that prognosis too gloomy? Perhaps, but the genetically re-engineered humans Julian Savules foresees as our salvation are far in the future. The cascading collapse of the Earth’s environment will wipe our species off the face of the Earth — along with most of our plant and animal cohabitants — long before such ethically improved people could have any ameliorative effect.
Maybe the best we can hope for is that the Earth will go through several eons of slumber, during which it regenerates itself and becomes capable of supporting life in one form or another once again. Perhaps the next creatures to inhabit this minor outpost in the galaxy will have the wisdom and foresight not to destroy the home that sustains them.
We used to think that nuclear weapons would destroy civilization. Little did we know the seeds of our own destruction — greed, the lust for power, and an innate inability to work together for the common good — were baked into our DNA and are more powerful than any weaponry. As humans, we believe we are the pinnacle of what is possible when it comes to sentient life forms, but it appears we are several orders of magnitude below perfection and genetically incapable of surviving our own failings. The fault truly is within ourselves, as Shakespeare suggested.
YIP Harburg was a fellow of some significant creative talents. He wrote the song Over The Rainbow and was deeply involved in the process that brought The Wizard of Oz to the screen. He also liked to write satirical poems. Here is an example.
God made the world in six days flat.
On the seventh, He said, “I’ll rest.”
So he let the thing into orbit swing,
To give it a dry run test.
A billion years went by,
Then he took a look at the whirling blob.
His spirits fell as He said,
“Oh, well. It was only a six day job.”
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