Though written hundreds of years ago, we can still empathize with the tragic heroes of works such as Hamlet and Anna Karenina. Despite their age, the classics aren’t so different from modern tragedies like Breaking Bad. In fact, they all illustrate common human flaws that often precipitate our downfall, such as pride, hunger for power, jealousy, and greed. These flaws are part of our cultural and genetic heritage. They’re part of what it means to be human.
Now, imagine that scientists develop treatments to remedy these flaws. It seems likely that as technology develops, and as our understanding of our brains increases, such remedies will become possible. For example, imagine a pill is formulated that modifies a person’s brain chemistry to increase their rationality or capacity for empathy, or reduce their predisposition towards hatred or greed. Would you take that kind of pill?
More imaginatively, what if a pill could make you attracted, not to physical beauty or fitness, but to exceptional intelligence or morality? What if a surgery changed your motivational system such that you received the pleasure equivalent to an orgasm after selflessly helping another human being?
Such thought experiments can be uncomfortable to think about, because at heart they question the human condition. Because we are human, and the human condition is all we know (having soaked in it our entire lives), we often just accept it or romanticize it: We assume that our natural condition is beyond change, or that it’s inherently good or beautiful. So when someone suggests that through technology we might in someway alter fundamentally what it means to be human, it’s discomforting: The reflex is often to dismiss such a possibility as unnatural.
As understandable as such a reflex is, blindly appealing to nature is a logical fallacy. It’s little different from opposing vaccines as immoral because they interfere with the natural process of infection. While tinkering with the human condition is not something to be taken lightly, it’s at least broadening to think about how our biology might be improved. Indeed, such thinking can also help us to see our species more objectively: It can help us to see more clearly the inherent pointlessness in many of the strange struggles that compose our lives.
The Strangeness of Self-Control
One such strange struggle that is imposed on us by our biology, is that we effectively often must battle ourselves to put our intentions into effect. For example, on the first of January I may set out to lose weight by avoiding eating fatty foods, and yet, my high-level intentions are easily overridden by momentary impulses for cheeseburgers or dessert. This is why people struggle with diets, why 88% of new year’s resolutions fail, and why you’re right to be skeptical of your friend’s claim that this time, he will finally succeed in quitting smoking cold turkey.
The ability to run out of self-control causes violence, like crimes of passion, and other sufferings as well, like cheating on your wife despite your best intentions by giving in to your immediate bodily impulses. In many ways, our lack of sufficient self-control degrades us from our ideal selves. Who at core really wants to be somewhat enslaved by lower desires when they conflict with our high-minded rational goals? Sure, I could be writing that essay, exercising my creativity and attempting to craft something of meaning – but there’s another episode of The League that’s calling my name. I don’t really want to give in, but more often than I’d like to, I do.
When you look objectively at the need for self-control for achieving our goals, it’s bizarre; why, if I really want to do something, like write for an hour before I go to sleep, is it so hard for me to actually follow through? Why should my brain not carry out my rational intentions? Wouldn’t we be more effective human beings if we could more easily keep the promises we make to ourselves? And it’s not just me – as a society we recognize this problem and desire greater self-discipline, as evidenced by the numerous self-help books on the topic. We realize that we can’t effectively control our own bodies – isn’t that crazy? It’s an idiosyncratic limitation of our own brains.
So, as scientists begin to better understand the chemistry of self-control, realistic treatments to increase self-control may become feasible. Imagine there was a pill that dramatically increased self-control – wouldn’t that be a significant improvement to the human condition? Wouldn’t it reduce violence and allow us as a species to aspire towards higher motivations? Sure, it would alter the human condition, but it would be an alteration intended to move us closer to the ideal of what is most `“human” about us – our ability to trump our primitive instincts.
The Strangeness of Falling in Love
Maybe moderately increasing self-control is a no-brainer – it’s fairly self-evident that humanity would be improved by it, and we’re not giving up much in return. So let’s examine something more central to the human condition, something that’s irrationally elevated by our culture: romantic love.
There’s something mysterious and romantic about the unpredictability of who you’ll find yourself falling in love with. But to fall in love with someone generally requires you be physically attracted to them first. While there’s no formula to attraction, there’s often a particular body type or personality type we find ourselves drawn to. To boil it down to a stereotype: men may often be attracted to women’s breasts, certain curves, and the appearance of youth; and women may often be attracted to physical strength, confidence, and power. These characteristics were once indicators of fertility or ability to survive, and so it makes sense from an evolutionary perspective that we’d find such features attractive: In caveman days, a physically strong man might better provide for a family.
Yet, because natural evolution is slower than cultural evolution, physical strength or breast size no longer meaningfully correlate with our ability to survive or our capacity to reproduce. Indeed, the work we do is largely intellectual instead of physical, and modern science facilitates nutrition and safe delivery of babies irrespective of breast or hip size.
The insanity is that in effect it’s as if both genders are conducting job interviews using meaningless criteria when seeking mates. It’s like hiring a street sweeper based on how well he can play the bongos. Indeed, how many of us have met someone we get along famously with, but attraction is mysteriously missing? Wouldn’t it be nice if romantic attraction was based not on outdated evolutionary signals, but on the characteristics that made us good and decent human beings; perhaps intelligence, morality, and empathy?
There are many other bizarrities about romantic love that we take for granted, like its general exclusiveness, its ability to render us temporarily insane, or that it exists at all, but the main point is that it’s possible to reimagine romantic love into a kinder, more sensical beast. Of course, the initial gut reaction to altering romantic love might be one of pure disgust – it’s an omnipresent cultural staple; and yet, logically, we shouldn’t put romantic love on a pedestal unless we can argue dispassionately for why it belongs there. At the same time, science appears much further from making this kind of reimagining a reality than with self-control, so the debate will likely remain purely hypothetical for a long while.
The human condition is a strange thing when you look at it objectively; we are far from perfect creatures, and our imperfections cause a huge magnitude of needless suffering and complication. We’re entering an age where it may become possible to augment our biology to enhance our morality or even change our motivational systems. And while such tinkering of course requires utmost caution, the benefits to humanity could be enormous.
Overall, we should be careful to avoid overly romanticizing our species’ condition, which is not well-engineered for the age we find ourselves in. Instead, its design was haphazardly crafted by the slow process of natural evolution, and as our culture and our technology have accelerated, our biological condition has become outdated and mismatched for the modern world we’ve quickly invented over the past century.