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Author Topic: Ecological utility vs. modern utility  (Read 8652 times)
Triarius Fidelis
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« on: April 08, 2010, 10:11:10 am »

Anyone familiar with ecology knows that species evolve according to a utility function imposed by their environment, one which compels their genome to achieve maximal or, at least satisfactory, fitness

When I think about the huge problems the world has, it seems reasonable to posit some connection between our ecological past ("evolutionary baggage") and a present in which our efforts at building desirable societies are consistently baffled to some degree and in many cases thwarted entirely

That is to say, we have ideas like "government shouldn't be corrupt" and "people shouldn't be racist" and "retribution is counterproductive" etc., which we value in modern utility functions for whole societies but innate, most likely evolved tendencies get in the way of the same

However, biotechnology has advanced considerably over the past few decades with the products of genetic engineering already in widespread use and the cost of technologies such as DNA sequencing dropping off exponentially

Why not just make sure zygotes who will develop into people with an innate propensity to be greedy, short-sighted or stupid are not carried to term

I accept that achieving a desirable society might be possible without genetic engineering of humans, BUT I don't see how it is preferable

I am still scratching my head looking for downsides in my approach
« Last Edit: April 08, 2010, 10:18:43 am by Döden » Logged

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« Reply #1 on: April 08, 2010, 10:36:34 am »

So who determines which traits are desirable and those that are not?

No thank you............
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« Reply #2 on: April 08, 2010, 11:01:46 am »

Well I think it should be the parents' choice initially

But eventually further, practical understanding of the outcome of manipulating human genetics would lead to a broader definition of what qualifies as "harm" (e.g., allowing greedy individuals to be born) than that which the law currently admits

see also

http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~baron/papers/obias.pdf

This paper explains the concept of omission bias nicely, which is central to my case. The idea is that we tend to weigh errors of commission more than errors of omission although normatively there is no distinction between them. Realizing this makes human GE look better
« Last Edit: April 08, 2010, 11:07:38 am by Döden » Logged

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« Reply #3 on: April 08, 2010, 04:14:25 pm »

a desirable society could mean anything. what is desireable to you may not be to me.

the only real thing any of us really have in common is we are human. we all think dif. act dif. like and dislike dif things.

sure we do find people who like the same things as us. but also we will not like some things they like.

thus a so called "a desirable society" will never happen.
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Triarius Fidelis
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« Reply #4 on: April 08, 2010, 05:18:04 pm »

Well you're right that utility is all subjective, in principle

But in some broad sense at least you can say things about an objective morality

This position is well-defended in the following TED Talk: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hj9oB4zpHww

...and I direct you to it because it's a better argument than I could easily make

Now, I gave greed as an example of an undesirable character trait earlier. I accept your point about relativity in some sense, but I don't think you'd want to be the victim of someone's greed and callousness though would you? Would you want to drink from and bathe in water like this? Water that got this way because someone's money was too precious to clean up after the petroleum byproducts they left behind



This scene, though very tragic, is not at all exceptional. It's a regular occurrence. It's a fact of life ... it's almost a law of society, in the sense of "a law of physics", that you wouldn't want to be in between someone and a commodity they've got their eyes on. It shouldn't be though. Why is it that way?

I am currently reading Origin of Mind, a book which aims to investigate the evolutionary basis of human intelligence and behavior. And, if correct, it bears out the idea I have that favoritism towards oneself or an in-group has an evolutionary basis. If so, it is at least partly heritable. And if greed is somehow heritable, then at least part of this character defect, among others, could be nipped right in the bud. I've had some success finding out about the genetic / neural bases of personality traits, desirable and undesirable ... not quite as much as I'd like but I'm sure more is out there to be found.

By the way, I'm not claiming something so absurdly reductionist as there being a "gene for [complex behavioral trait]"; genes in themselves only encode RNA and, indirectly, polypeptide products. I am claiming, however, that manipulating genes involved in behavior with due regard to environmental factors and the complexity of neurobiology itself would have a profound effect on society. This point is uncontroversial; whether it should be done isn't

And my overarching point is that I don't think 21st century technology and Pleistocene-era people are at all a safe mixture. If it is reasonable to assume that human genetic engineering could enhance societal welfare considerably (and I think it is), what kind of people would we be to hold back and let society go to ****?
« Last Edit: April 08, 2010, 07:48:28 pm by Döden » Logged

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« Reply #5 on: April 08, 2010, 09:42:35 pm »

..... what kind of people would we be to hold back and let society go to ****?

We'd be human.

And I'd fight tooth and nail against any society that decided to make some arbitrary determination that one trait is desirable over another, and would therefore manipulate genetics to achieve it. If society as a whole doesn't have the cajones to step up to the plate and do what's right, it deserves to fail.
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« Reply #6 on: April 08, 2010, 10:25:44 pm »

And fail they do.  I worry a bit about one of Doden's premises, which for millions of years has been survival of the fittest. Now that we have the ability (and often the inclination) to allow the least fit to live, for how long will that premise be valid?  Further, since it has been operating for so long, perhaps billions of years, are there any of us today who are not largely greedy?  Greed, redefined as self-interest, or even will-to-survive, is that which underlies much of what we call progress. Perhaps we could find one or two folks somewhere in Africa whose ancestors were not greedy and let them populate the earth.  Or has that already been done?  And what to do with the rest of us? Perhaps a flood.

Doden's idea, though, at least conceptually, is something that has been around awhile.  Darwinism forms the basis of a lot of this thinking, good (Doden) and bad (Hitler). What we have learned is that if something is possible, someone will do it. So I suspect we will see Doden's idea implemented by some group, perhaps a church of some kind. If it could be done before conception, abortion could be removed from the picture. Nonetheless, I agree with retired1AF, for reasons well-expressed by him and others in this thread, that any effort to force it on anyone would and should be violently resisted.

« Last Edit: April 09, 2010, 07:40:29 am by sledgehammer » Logged

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« Reply #7 on: April 09, 2010, 12:20:54 am »

Provoking thoughts.

People inherently act differently when in a crowd vs alone. The type of DNA modification that you are exploring
would wind up under control of one person or small group. That is where the danger lies.

Even with genetic engineering how would you approach the fact that a persons environment also shapes thier outcome?

A child is engineered. The life style of the child would have to be perfect as well. Where is the beginning and end?

Bigpaws
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« Reply #8 on: April 09, 2010, 04:12:24 am »

It comes to mind that there was someone who already attempted something similar, and if genetics had been as well known then as it is now, who knows what he would have done. Who was this person? Adolph Hitler.
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« Reply #9 on: April 09, 2010, 07:57:27 am »

Bigpaws has a good point. I know very liitle about this, but the plasticity of our brain shouldn't be taken into consideration? If external factors shape our decisions, genetics cant provide a definitive solution. In that case, the modification of the environment is the real problem, something more close to economics or social engineering (I think.) On the other hand, if we can remove the possibility or capability of being evil in each individual, the problem is solved.
Many issues come when we think about this in general. What if we can predict, with help of genetics, that a new Mr Burns or something is arriving? Maybe if we can know this, actions can be taken in specific cases. Is this at all possible?

In a more philosophical spirit, can we remove evilness and still have some fun?

It comes to mind that there was someone who already attempted something similar, and if genetics had been as well known then as it is now, who knows what he would have done. Who was this person? Adolph Hitler.

Is not too soon for that? We will have to investigate modifications for the Godwin's law, probably adding an equation for calculating probablilities given the thread size.
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« Reply #10 on: April 09, 2010, 08:18:10 am »

How can one NOT debate the issue without taking into consideration the so called "evil" that would most likely appear with such a policy? Again, letting a group of people decide what is good for society, and then acting on it via genetics and/or termination of the pregnancy isn't exactly the type of society I'd want to be a part of.
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« Reply #11 on: April 09, 2010, 08:32:09 am »

I agree with rbistolfi and Bigpaws.  Social engineering, especially that which better prepares society for child rearing would a huge positive impact.  The effects on infants not receiving human touch, even just for a number of weeks during early of development has been shown to cripple them emotionally and physiologically for life. See http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/biology/b103/f01/web3/arima.html

A further indication that more can be accomplished with how we nurture rather than tampering with nature can be found here.
http://www.wikisummaries.org/Freakonomics:_A_Rogue_Economist_Explores_the_Hidden_Side_of_Everything#Chapter_4:_Where_Have_All_the_Criminals_Gone.3F
Basically, crime dropped 18 years after the legalization of abortion.  After first being introduced to this idea I found it controversial, but I have to agree that a parent forced by law to raise a child they did not want or were not ready for, would not provide the nurturing necessary to raise a stable, happy, socially competent adult.  You could go further and look at the rate at which children raised in foster care enter into lives of crime in adult-hood, and I'm sure there are many more examples.

Really, I think poor nurturing is a far bigger contributor to the ills you seek to cure then genetics by a long shot.  So to counter with my own sci-fi controversial idea... How about mandatory sterilization of everybody until the can prove they are up to the challenges of actually providing a little love for there children.  (Well, of course this is wrong as well, again providing an elite group the ability to make determinations on what should be an individual right.)
« Last Edit: April 09, 2010, 10:28:41 am by stretchedthin » Logged

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« Reply #12 on: April 09, 2010, 08:58:30 am »

Well cultural and biological engineering aren't mutually exclusive

To put it in cybernetic terms, we could provide higher quality input and make sure it's transduced into productive behavior more effectively

It comes to mind that there was someone who already attempted something similar, and if genetics had been as well known then as it is now, who knows what he would have done. Who was this person? Adolph Hitler.

Well, see, skin color and facial architecture are normatively irrelevant

So I find analogies between my plan and the NSDAP's (which by the way was laden with a lot of mystical pagan drivel) to be quite untenable

Really, I think poor nurturing is a far bigger contributor to the ills you seek to cure then genetics by a long shot.

A number of undesirable character traits are highly heritable

..... what kind of people would we be to hold back and let society go to ****?

We'd be human.

We'd also be unethical

See the omission bias paper I linked to

And I'd fight tooth and nail against any society that decided to make some arbitrary determination that one trait is desirable over another, and would therefore manipulate genetics to achieve it. If society as a whole doesn't have the cajones to step up to the plate and do what's right, it deserves to fail.

Well I don't see things that way

I feel that the combination of rapid technological development with fundamentally Stone Age people will become (actually ... is) unacceptably dangerous. We could get away with evolutionary baggage when our arrows were tipped with stone and bone but now they've got the fire of the Sun in their point so it's another ball of wax altogether isn't it

Though I am no behaviorist I like how Skinner made the case for determinism: "A small part of the universe is contained within the skin of each of us. There is no reason why it should have any special physical status because it lies within this boundary"

In other words, the human race is a product of evolutionary engineering. You can use social institutions to redirect its behavior to a degree (i.e., use "hacks") but I think we will run into hard limits with this approach

Your line of thinking assumes free will exists when there's no a priori reason to believe that it does and some physiological evidence to deny it as well ... libertarianism is a big bag of empty promises
« Last Edit: April 09, 2010, 10:25:37 am by Döden » Logged

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« Reply #13 on: April 11, 2010, 02:33:34 pm »

Let's just be clear about what we're talking about here, and quit beating around the bush and hiding behind euphemisms like "utility" and "normative irrelevancy."  We're talking about eugenics.  You know who else liked eugenics?



That's right, Khan Noonien Singh!  You thought I was going to say Hitler?  Hitler had nothing on this guy.  He was a prince, with power over millions.  Even though he fled Earth in 1996 (in the DY-100 class ship the S.S. Botany Bay), during the Eugenics Wars of the 1990s whole populations were bombed out of existence.  Is that what we want to try again?

No, I don't think this is a good idea.
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« Reply #14 on: April 11, 2010, 04:14:16 pm »

Let's just be clear about what we're talking about here, and quit beating around the bush and hiding behind euphemisms like "utility" and "normative irrelevancy."

They're not euphemisms

I don't want to get distracted by deontological language

We're talking about eugenics.

So?

You know who else liked eugenics?



That's right, Khan Noonien Singh!  You thought I was going to say Hitler?  Hitler had nothing on this guy.  He was a prince, with power over millions.  Even though he fled Earth in 1996 (in the DY-100 class ship the S.S. Botany Bay), during the Eugenics Wars of the 1990s whole populations were bombed out of existence.  Is that what we want to try again?

Well I don't remember saying that I wanted to bomb out non-GE humans

I'm just saying they should be prevented from happening in the future

A zygote is no more sentient than an E. coli specimen lurking in my poop chute so you can't really inflict any disutility on them

I don't see how society would suffer from having smarter, more conscientious people in it

If we are to climb the Kardashev scale (or even take care of our own planet) we've got quite a task cut out for ourselves

Since human GE could have huge payoffs while remaining very cost-effective there's no reason not to use it

Biotechnology and biologically-inspired technologies will most likely be to the 21st century what electronics was to the 20th

These are some pretty amazing times to live in
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