Outsmarting Evolution

As human beings, we are like other living creatures, the product of evolution. Whatever we have become, we are the end of myriad adaptations. Language was perhaps the most important evolutionary innovation in our phylogenetic history. With the tool of language and our cognitive skills we have produced technology that has brought us up to and into the modern age. With all its wonders, technology exacts a cost--the loss of our innate humanity--all the attributes that make us so different from the complex machines that increasingly come to dominate our lives.

Now comes a new technological threat-- the use of psychopharmacological drugs to enhance performance. Judith Warner writes:

What if you could just take a pill and all of a sudden remember to pay your bills on time? What if, thanks to modern neuroscience, you could, simultaneously, make New Year’s Eve plans, pay the mortgage, call the pediatrician, consolidate credit card debt and do your job — well — without forgetting dentist appointments or neglecting to pick up your children at school?

Would you do it? Tune out the distractions of our online, on-call, too-fast A.D.D.-ogenic world with focus and memory-enhancing medications like Ritalin or Adderall? Stay sharp as a knife — no matter how overworked and sleep-deprived — with a mental-alertness-boosting drug like the anti-narcolepsy medication Provigil?...

...Cognitive enhancement — a practice typified by the widely reported abuse of psychostimulants by college students cramming for exams, and by the less reported but apparently growing use of mind-boosters like Provigil among in-the-know scientists and professors — goes against the grain of some of our most basic beliefs about fairness and meritocracy. It seems to many people to be unnatural, inhuman, hubristic, pure cheating.

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To me this is the ultimate misuse and abuse of technology. Bill Mckibben wrote of these excesses in Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, warning against trying to outsmart our genetic destinies. To be human is to be the absolute opposite of a machine. Complexity and unpredictability are features that produce our emotions and creativity. We were warned years ago by Huxley's Brave New World to beware of drugs that appear to solve all our problems

And if ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should somehow happen, why, there's always soma to give you a holiday from the facts. And there's always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the past you could only accomplish these things by making a great effort and after years of hard moral training. Now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are. Anybody can be virtuous now. You can carry at least half your mortality about in a bottle. Christianity without tears-that's what soma is.

I'd rather take my chances, using only aspirin and naproxen for my minor aches and pains. Flourishing does not mean perfection.

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