I have to admit that when John Perry first suggested that we do a show on the emerging field of neurcosmetology, I was a little hesitant. I had never even heard of the subject until John brought it up. As John mentions, if you Google neurocosmetology all that comes up are links to our own web page announcing the topic. And to top it off, google asks if you don't really mean"neurocosmology." Heaven knows what that one means! But if Google is a reliable indicator, "neurocosmology" currently has a lot more currency than 'neurocosmetology.' In fairness, though, I should note that if you Google "cosmetic neurology" you'll get quite a lot of hits. There's clearly lots happening out there on this score. There's so much happening, in fact, that even the President's Council on Bioethics has seen fit to weigh in with a massive report entitled "Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness."
Here's a quote from the Letter of Transmittal to the President -- that would be that great thinker George W. Bush -- that accompanies that report.
On the optimistic view, the emerging picture is one of unmitigated progress and improvement. It envisions a society in which more and more people are able to realize the American dream of liberty, prosperity, and the justice for all. It is a nation whose citizens are longer-lived, more competent, better accomplished, more productive and happier than human beings have ever been before. It is a world in which many more human beings -- biologically better-equipped, aided by performance-enhancers, liberated from the constraints of nature and fortune -- can live lives of achievement, contentment, and high self-esteem, come what may.
But there are reasons to wonder whether life will really be better if we turn to biotechnology to fulfill our deepest human desires. There is an old expression: to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To a society armed with biotechnology, the activities of human life may seem more amenable to improvement than they really are. Or we may imagine ourselves wiser than we really are. Or we may get more easily what we asked for only to realize it is much less than what we really want.
Throughout the report -- which I haven't yet read in its entirety and won't by airtime -- one finds a constant back and forth between an optimistic assessment and cautionary notes. I think both the optimism and the caution seem reasonable enough. But in this pre-show post, I want to begin by questioning what seems implicit in the cautionary notes of this report -- what we might call the 'wisdom' of nature argument against investing too much hope or energy into the drive for biological enhancement.
The argument goes roughly like this -- though I haven't really seen it outlined in detail anywhere. Human beings are evolved natural creatures, shaped by natural selection for thousands upon thousands of years. Through a long-run process of trial and error, natural selection has provided us with an amazingly adaptive kit of capacities. We lack the wisdom, collectively, to tinker with evolution's fine tuning in ways that will serve our collective good and promote justice. The better course is to respectfully accept the nature with which evolution has provided us. We should have a kind of reverence for that given nature and not seek to alter it. To say this is not to say that we cannot fight diseases, for example. These are imperfections of that nature. It is not even to say that we ought not to try to ameliorate external circumstances, like poverty, malnourishment, etc, that prevent us from fully realizing our natures. But to try to improve nature itself is to take on more than we collectively are prepared for.
If you are of a more theistic bent, simply replace talk of evolution with talk of a divinely given nature, and you can run a similar argument.
Now natural selection is a really cool thing. No doubt, human "nature" is one of its most amazing products. I don't doubt, either, that if we are to tinker with human nature, we should do so gingerly, with a sense of awe and wonder at natural selection's amazing powers of design.
Nonetheless, I find myself entirely unmoved by appeals to the "wisdom" of nature. What really is nature, afterall? We speak of the natural world, the natural order, natural objects, natural processes, the laws of nature, and on and on. But these are all really very different and it's important to think carefully about their differences.
Perhaps the most fundamental aspect of what we call nature are the fundamental laws of nature. In some sense, we might say that the laws of nature "govern" everything else in nature. If there are such things as laws of nature that "govern" the operations of the "natural" universe -- which would, I suppose include everything in the universe -- then nothing can violate those laws. Nature's laws govern the universe like absolute monarchs, exercising absolute dominion over everything within Nature's domain.
(I'm not sure that I accept this approach to natural law, by the way. One thing it assumes is that even in an "empty universe" that contained no "facts" there could still be determinate "laws" "governing" that universe. I'm not sure this makes sense, but that's a deep issue better left for another day and another post.)
Back to the idea of absolute, inviolable laws of nature. If there are such things, then nothing we do can possibly violate those laws. We can exploit them in creating technological and social innovations. But we can't violate them -- ever. So if the "wisdom" of nature resides in, say, the beauty, power, simplicity and elegance of nature's fundamental laws, then biotechnology and human intervention into certain law-governed processes doesn't violate the wisdom of nature. They really exploit the wisdom of nature. Nature's wisdom is, in effect, there for the exploiting. And you might think that the true wonder of human kind is that we have learned better than any of the rest of nature's products to exploit nature itself.
The defender of the wisdom of nature will probably insist that I've missed the point. It isn't the laws themselves, or at least not only the laws, that manifest the wisdom of nature. Rather, it's something like the combination of natural laws, natural objects, and natural processes that manifest the wisdom of nature. This is a little tricky, however. If you mean by a natural process one that is governed by the laws of nature, then because of the monarchical character of those laws, every process is a natural one. And if you mean by natural objects, objects produced by processes governed by the laws of nature, then every object is a natural object.
Of course, I'm still missing the point, the defender of the wisdom of nature argument will no doubt say. But that's because the defender hasn't really made her point very clearly so far. What she really means to say is not anything about the wisdom of "nature" as such. The term 'nautre' has too many different uses for it to be of much use here. She really means to be saying something about the wisdom of the "given," as we might call it. The given is that which we find in the world, antecedently to anything of our doing. The given is to be contrasted with the made, the invented. the constructed. There are a set of biological capacities that are given to us, that are not of our doing. There is a system, an order of things, that we merely find or come across. At least there was once upon a time. By this stage in human history, hardly anything on the planet earth is present to us merely as it was antecedently given to our progenitors. We have left our fingerprints everywhere, mixed our labor with everything, invented new processes that exploit nature's laws, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill, in a breathtaking variety of ways that might sometimes make the Architect of Nature proud and sometimes make that Architect angry.
Is there such a thing as the wisdom of the given to which we should merely reverentially bow, with which we should not tinker, at least within certain limits? That, I think, must be the real question behind wisdom of nature type arguments.
But now that I've finally isolated the question, I'll have to punt on answering it, at least for the nonce. Maybe we'll get to it on the air in about three hours from now. If we don't, I promise to come back to it in my post -show post, after I have been illuminated by John Perry and Sam Barondes.
For now, I gotta go, as Ian Shoales likes to say.