Genetic editing, neuroprostheses, and the very high risk of becoming zombies.

Note: edited and augmented 1 April 2018.

… or at least zombiesque.

First, I still do not hear anybody talking about genetic editing or neuro-electronic strategies for making us compassionate, prosocial, and biophilic enough to render us a sustainable species. At least this is arguably necessary, i.e., to take the maintenance and future construction of the relevent aspects our brain circuitry out of the hands of natural selection. See my previous entries.

Pondering what is coming down the pike in connection with revolutionary advances in genetic editing and neuroprostheses…

Right now: Other people are naturally evolved to hack into my unconscious and influence me. But, I have pretty well matched evolved defenses against maladaptive manipulation, and nonconsciously controlled circuitry that renders me more or less susceptible to adaptive manipulation. My nonconscious is good at looking out for my interests, at least (actually JUST) in ways that make me a good gene replicator.

But, also right now, just minimally foreshadowing what is coming in the next few decades: What poisons are in this piece of “wild-caught” salmon? What is my computer security software really doing? What really is happening with my social media data? What’s in this software or firmware update? How am I already being manipulated in powerful, evolutionarily novel ways just through my computer and internet usage that my current, evolved psychological defenses cannot fully deal with?

Soon: What really is in this memory-enhancing chip going into my head? What is really in this genetic editing cocktail that is supposed to just decrease my genetic or epigenetic risk factors for hundreds of diseases? We’ll never know for sure, before or after its done to us.

Whatever changes the corporations or governments make in us, however we are hacked biologically and electronically, however our concerns and preferences are tweaked or radically changed, we won’t even be aware of it. Or we’ll like it. Love it. That will be part of the hack, obviously.

And nobody, not even the most rich and powerful will be immune. Everyone will be bio-electronically hacked, including any appointed “regulatory personnel.” (They’ll be the first targets!) We’ll all unwittingly just be things, helplessly and often gleefully sucked into the larger internet-of-things. Hell, eventually, we can even be hacked by a little chip added to an artificial limb. Genetic editing cocktails can be put in our fish oil pill, our flu vaccine, our soup or wine.

Soon, everyone will be augmented, diminished, and otherwise altered. In combination. There will be no defenses. How will that play out? It seems unavoidable to me, given existing deep human nature. Its going to be an enormous train wreck.

Maybe some people will avoid it all, for some time, by becoming highly disciplined, ascetic, contemplative hermits, very far from population centers, very hidden, using traditional, cultural, completely “organic” means of self-study, continuing the possible struggle to gain some freedom from our natural, evolved slavery to nonconscious neural regulatory system. Short of that? Everyone else will be more or less happy zombies.

— Paul (for now?)

Added 1 April 2018:

A reader asks:  “But wouldn’t any genetic editing for the so-called biophilia, etc., be susceptible to same?”

Answer: Yes, it would.

But, at least it would be a more limited and exclusively genetic-editing or epigenetic engineering enterprise, aiming for relatively subtle, potentially adequate changes in people’s attitudes. So, possibly subject to successful, extreme multi-layered regulation. Plus, this gene editing goal has the unique justification going for it that it probably is our species’ only hope for survival. The only way of making it through our technological adolescence. It’s actually required. My living to be 115 years old, or beyond, is not.

I reject electronic neural prostheses except for very limited medical use (such as those paralyzed in accidents, those suffering abnormal memory loss in old age). These electronic neuroprotheses will be much easier to use for precise and extreme manipulation of recipients than genetic-editing, I predict. Since few people would receive these, no opportunity for governments and corporations to create ideological, military, or various slave armies.

New realization (for me): Even if a corporation generates widespread trust by installing “clean” neuro-enhancing chips in people’s body-minds, aren’t we going to want those chips to be capable of non-invasive upgrades via the web? Like never-ending computer program updates of today, and firmware updates?

At the right time and place, when many “users” (recipients) are out there, imagine what kind of stuff could be included in an update. Or a “fake” update originating outside the “ethical, well-regulated” company that supplied and services the chips. — PJW


Sustainable Human Upgrades

The comments below were posted on 29 June 2017 to the discussion section associated with a TED talk by Gregory Stock entitled, “To Upgrade Is Human.”

I’m an evolutionary psychologist – I study human nature from a modern Darwinian perspective. I also have broad experience in behavioral ecology, with a background in field work entailing decades of watching natural selection in action. Overall, I study the kinds of minds, including human minds, that natural selection creates. The reason to point this out is that it leads to a perspective on what a truly upgraded human would be like, or at least should be, and when you get down to it actually MUST be like. So, I agree 100% with G. Stock that the biotech future he talks about, in which we begin to take charge of our species’ evolution, is inevitable. But what always is lacking from these talks is exactly what one would expect given that they are formulated by well-meaning but naturally-selected human minds: competitive, anthropocentric, and ruthlessly contingent, parochial, and selfish in our expression of altruism and compassion. It is a fatal omission. I’ll come right out with it. Our first priority should be intensive global research enabling us to use fast-emerging genetic-editing technologies to grab the evolution of our pan-cultural, pan-ethnic, species-typical mind/brain out of the future-blind amoral hands of natural selection. To survive, and to save the planet, we must implement a program of intentional evolution that puts enhancement of our capacities for prosociality, biophilia, and compassion first. These are the enhancements that will make our species sustainable. This is the keystone upgrade we need to create a socioecological context in which all humans have a healthy place and a happier social context to live their longer, healthier, sexier, brainier lives, in communion with other species. As the speaker so rightly says, mistakes will be made. The biggest mistake, however, will be to ignore this necessity or turn away in fear. Or worse, to passively place our psychological future into the hands of exploitative regimes and profit-obsessed corporations.

Compassion and Evolutionary Psychology

Almost certainly without intending to do so, yet more so than any intentional or unintentional guru in history, Charles Darwin set the stage for humanity to attain a level of self-understanding that truly could be pan-culturally transformative. To come to this point took a little over 100 years of digestion of Darwinism, aided by key theoretical advances from several other exceptional Darwinians who together, beginning in the 1960’s, significantly extended Darwin’s original theory (e.g., Bill Hamilton, George Williams, Richard Alexander, Robert Trivers, George Price, Maynard Smith).

But now, perhaps in the very nick of time, we have a sufficient body of impartial, scientifically grounded insights into human intrapsychic design that may, if truly learned by members of a growing human community, may serve to alter our mental functioning enough to bring about the level of revolution in human capacities for compassion needed to make Homo sapiens a sustainable species. Really a new, hyper-auto-domesticated, Hominin species.

Practices and even teachings from many of the world’s ancient wisdom traditions may help with this vital intrapsychic transformation. They my even be necessary – I leave that question open. But, I believe, and I think everyone feeling interested in nurturing significant advances of compassion (activist prosociality and biophilia) should conspire to seriously set forth the proposition that modern evolutionary psychology and neuroscience, modern evolutionary behavioral ecology in general, must become the main basis for self-understanding in the modern age, superseding all former sources of self-understanding as an informing, objectifying influence*, if the human experiment is to continue much longer, and indeed perhaps the whole unspeakably astonishing experiment of life on Earth is to flourish.

“Unless we all live our lives in the torment of contradictions, we are not human.”  Anonymous

Real self-knowledge exposes our conscious minds to normally cryptic patterns of thought and behavior that are troubling, sometime very troubling, for anyone with an intact conscience. Can humankind culturally evolve to use the evolutionarily novel and burgeoning “insight-power” of modern Darwinism as an unprecedented basis for establishing and expanding communities seriously capable of living in this way — communities thus capable of collaborating to lead our species into a viable, worthwhile future?

Dr. Paul J. Watson – 16 April 2017

“Materialist Spirituality”

I have ventured to make a number of comments associated with the following TED talk, which I rated “beautiful” and “unconvincing.”

Here is one of my comments:

As an evolutionary psychologist and scientific materialist with nontrivial experience in “spiritual practice” over the decades, since my mid-teens (I’m now 59), which I appreciate more than I can say, I still use the word spirituality quite frequently. But for me, spiritual practice has come to entail intrapsychic exercises and verifiable self-knowledge (i.e., via application of objectifying influences from evolutionary psychology and neuroscience) that can reshape our nervous systems to function not quite as they were designed to by natural selection. To be brief, for me, where the rubber hits the road vis-a’-vis human spiritual potential is to build intrapsychic “muscles” allowing us occasionally arrange to have greater freedom to know, feel, and sense more in a given moment than our inborn, physical, naturally-selected intrapsychic regulatory mechanisms would allow by default. Richer less regulated conscious experiences – more objective ones. We have, I’m convinced, an unknown potential to process any impression more thoroughly than is wholly “natural” for us. I think only humans can undertake this great spiritual struggle, which occurs completely on a physical level, but which is still potentially “miraculously” transformative.

When we bring in immaterial ideas and language, and we assume that immaterial forces are operative, then there are no limits as to the assumptions we can make about what’s really going on. It feels really good, but it allows imagination to run wild. I think that this hinders and short-circuits the real work I allude to above.

Kind regards, PJW

Comments in response to this popular TED talk on CRISPER-based genetic editing:

In the Carl Sagan inspired movie “Contact,” the good Dr. Alloway (Jodi Foster) wants to ask the advanced aliens who have invited humanity for a first meetup the most important question of all, the truly perfect question, which is, “How did you make it through your technological adolescence without destroying yourselves?”

This technological adolescence is where Homo sapiens was when the movie was made in 1997 and when the C. Sagan book the movie was based on was written in 1985. It is where we are now. And it is not going well. We are headed towards socioecological catastrophe. Hope is rapidly diminishing. “This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around…”

In the movie, Dr. Alloway forgets to ask the question – excusable given the context. But unfortunate. As I have written elsewhere, I have a proposal for what the answer would have been: “Well, Dr. Alloway, the only advanced forms of life we have found are ones that figured out a way to take the evolution of their minds out of the hands of natural selection. The only way through the technological adolescence that we have seen is for the global society to agree to use CRISPEResque gene-editing technologies, first and foremost, as the basis for a well-researched program of intentional evolution. To be successful, this program has to be aimed at creating a psyche that consistently supports socioecologically sustainable goals and attitudes. Most of the successes involve continuously tweaking the genome in ways that render and maintain substantially more prosocial, biophilic, and generally compassionate minds in the global community than would ever come about by relying on natural selection as the genetic engineer.”

We have been and continue to be “designed,” without any foresight, in every aspect of our being, by the mechanism of natural selection. Evolutionary psychologists understand that while natural selection can come up with elaborate mental mechanisms capable of things like conscience and compassion, every such capacity it bestows is “designed,” in the end, to make individuals better at maximizing their lifetime inclusive fitness. So, every form of altruism ultimately is genetically selfish and, therefore, only is manifested strategically and contingently to directly or indirectly maximize propagation of the genes of the individual.

As we think about the uses of CRISPER for human genetic and epigenetic editing with the aim of coming up with “favorable outcomes,” we had better start facing the fact that we currently are congenitally utterly unable to muster the levels of prosociality and biophilia that can even come close to making us a sustainable life form. Cultural evolution alone will never be strong enough to overcome the very clever naturally selected genetic programs that drive our ultimately selfish patterns of behavior. It is an existential emergency that we make the grand leap toward genetically engineering ourselves not just to be sexier, healthier, longer-lived, or smarter… – all goals you would expect a naturally selected mind to come up with, and ones that do nothing to enhance our sustainability. We must race to transform ourselves from Homo sapiens sapiens, to Homo intentionalis compassionatus.

Note that the intentional genetic evolution program I have alluded to above is aimed at modifying key SPECIES-TYPICAL genes for unsustainably contingent and genetically selfish patterns of prosociality and biophilia, not to mention SPECIES-TYPICAL genes underlying our tremendous, largely unconscious ability to mute our consciousness and conscience as we perform, on a daily basis, big and small acts of socioecological violence and destruction. In other words, most or all of the “target genes” occur, probably with little or no meaningful allelic variation, in ALL human populations and ethnic groups.

Thus, the intentional genetic evolution program under discussion has nothing to do with identifying a superior race that would serve as an “eugenic” model for all others to become. For the human experiment to continue, along with many of the other miraculous ongoing evolutionary experiments in the earth’s biosphere which, through our horrible collective naturally-selected selfishness are quickly being extinguished, we must all, collectively, become a new far more compassionate species of human, one that does not yet exist on the planet.

We have got to begin talking openly about this project, and figuring out how to promptly implement it, or all the other emerging opportunities that bio- and other technologies offer us will be irrelevant.

The problematic, pan-cultural, species-typical genes mostly are yet to be discovered, a project that I hope will begin very soon. The next step will be research on how to modify those species-typical DNA sequences (some useful, virtuous natural variants may exist in a person of any race or culture, we should look for those worldwide) most efficaciously to produce new variants that, in combination, will transform our entire species into one not doomed to destroy ourselves and the intricate treasure trove of biological and ecological systems that life on earth depends upon. Some responses to other folks’ comments below…

(1) In reply to:

E, Irrespective of what we Humans do, Nature will decide for itself what will become of us and our Planet.



Eventually, of course, in a manner of speaking; this statement is a truism. But in the meantime, we can try to prevent or ameliorate catastrophes, and terrible associated sufferings, that we may in principle have lots of control over. We have at least a modicum of real decision power and we can transform certain inevitabilities into evitabilities, to steal language from Daniel Dennett. We have evolved some freedom. Will it be enough? The clock is ticking. Will we transition during our species’ “technological adolescence” into “responsible adults,” or just continue to indulge in naturally selected thinking and behavioral patterns guaranteed to spoil everything? Action is called for, putting to really good and responsible use, as a global civilization, the tools coming online, not passivity.

Certainly, using rapidly developing genetic and epigenetic editing tools, such as CRISPER, we do not HAVE to let natural selection decide who/what we are as a species, including, most crucially, in the domains of prosociality, biophilia and compassion. — PJW

(2) In reply to:

Hi, Do you think there is an ethical issue relating to the editing of DNA by using CRISPR technology? Regards, Reem


Hi RA,

I think that any “action plan,” every intervention, and every instance of non-action where action is called for, is likely to have ethical implications. So, let’s talk about the ethics in a sober, informed, and transparent manner, but always remembering that if we indulge in endless ethical debate, which is all too easy, the clock never stops ticking. We run the dire risk of losing the opportunity of doing something very good as we search, often just for the sake of social competition (human nature),  for nonexistent perfect solutions. — PJW


Moral Liberty

Concerning our “moral liberty,” an important part of the larger “free will” question: The Evolutionary Psychological doctrine of computationalism is important here. We are not simple stimulus – response machines. Stimuli and behavior are mediated, always, by computations. The self itself is a process emerging and re-emerging from a storm of computational activity in our own brain. As human adults, we are called upon, IMO, to take responsibility for these computations whether they are conscious or unconscious. If we fail to groom ourselves, holistically as it were, to be adequately prosocial, such that we perform actions that break the boilerplate social contract of our group, then, although such self-grooming may entail hard work, we must ultimately be held responsible. Who could be more responsible than we are ourselves? Sure, you can pass some blame to bad parenting, PTSD, etc. If parents were abusive by community standards you can even punish them. If your community does not help you recover from trauma, especially when you experienced it while working on behalf of that community, any penalties for your bad actions probably should be reduced. But ultimately, again, if you are neurobiologically intact within a couple standard deviations of the norm or so, then you have to take responsibility for your whole-brain process that leads to your flowing environmentally responsive train of self-configurations and behaviors. So, learn about yourself, and recognize that you do have a modicum of practical free will which you can tune up and channel toward greater more consistent prosociality and even biophilia – we need to nurture both to survive as a species on a decent planet. Find a practice that will help you do this, and get to work. If you do, welcome to the great human project of actively exploring your own human potential. Weakness is not the same as helplessness. Don’t try to pretend that it is. — PJW (9-14-2016)

Science eLetter discussion on, “Evolution in the Anthropocene.”

RE: An Intentional “Evolutionary Transition” Is Called For…

Paul J. Watson, Evolution of social and sexual behavior

Dept. of Biology, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM, USA

5 March 2016

I am happy beyond words to have this fantastic conservation article, “Evolution in the Anthropocene,” published in Science (26 Feb. 2016, p.922), broaching the critical and revolutionary subject of our species’ need to implement a radically less selfish (i.e., a fundamentally more prosocial and biophilic) EvoCentric attitude toward conservation. Natural selection has been able to produce a number of fantastic evolutionary transitions (e.g., see Andrew F.G. Bourke’s splendid, “Principles of Social Evolution,” ISBN-13: 978-0199231164), but all of them involved the arising of new forms of organisms that, in the end, always were better at maximizing individual lifetime inclusive fitness, no holds barred. The current article suggests the need for, and the possibility of, a level of unselfishness qualitatively different than anything natural selection has or could possibly produce on its own. But, the article implies that humans may attain the requisite qualities of mind through cultural evolution alone. I think that together we must face up to the very high likelihood, given the incredible power and “purpose” of natural selection, that this is highly doubtful. The evolution of all our cultures, both past and present, are highly constrained by foundational genetic designs currently under the control of good old-fashioned natural selection. Thus, the only way humans will attain an truly novel evolutionary transition, one based on human intrapsychic designs that could seriously be interested in Evocentric Conservation is if we take the biologically unprecedented step of wrenching the evolution of our minds out of the tightly clenched hands of natural selection by implementing a thoroughly researched and supervised program of intentional cognitive-emotional evolution. I suggest that in the midst of the urgent worldwide debate about how we should use emerging genetic engineering technologies, such as CRISPR/CAS9 and gene drive, that we not ignore the amazing just-in-the-nick-of-time opportunity on offer, through such techniques, to do just this. The human race needs to implement an emergency program focused with laser beam clarity on learning how to edit our own species-typical and pan-cultural genome in such a way that we evolve minds that are actually capable of carrying out Evocentric conservation strategies, on a sustained, widespread, and minimally contingent basis.


Reply to Watson: “Science without conscience is nothing but ruin to the soul”

François Sarrazin, Professor

Sorbonne Universités, UPMC Univ Paris 06, Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, CNRS, CESCO, UMR 7204, 75005 Paris, France

Other Contributors:

Jane Lecomte, Professor

17 March 2016

We sincerely thank Paul Watson for his enthusiasm for our perspective. We nevertheless have to answer to two main points of his e-letter. First, we remind that we advocated for “comprehensive dialogs among social scientists, ecologists, and evolutionary biologists to explore the biological and cultural roots of our interactions with nonhumans and to understand the origins of our inertia in the face of the urgency of biodiversity erosion”. It is thus clear that, similarly to Paul Watson, we embrace both biological and cultural processes in the human evolutionary trajectory. However we remain extremely prudent and open-minded on the actual level of the genetic basis in daily human decisions. We distinguished human well-being and human fitness in our scenarios whereas we consider that the well-being of nonhuman is mostly fitness driven. Indeed, human behaviors exhibit Darwinian puzzles that challenge evolutionary theory. Over the past million years, human groups improved the resilience of their fitness components by increasing cognition, empathy and cooperation. They secured their resources and reduced the impact of predation, competition and parasitism through niche construction, modifying selective pressures for both themselves and other organisms. They could then devote increasing time and energy using sensory and cognitive traits to enhance rewards beyond significant fitness gains in a process of ‘phenotypic emancipation’ i.e. an expanse of the bubble of their well-being. Among others, agriculture, medicine, fossil fuels, contraception provided opportunities to magnify this process at least on the short-term. For any organisms, phenotypic emancipation should ultimately be counter-selected when the energy devoted to individual well-being outcompetes fitness requirements. However, this trade-off might be temporally displaced whenever cooperation and niche construction reduce selective pressures at the individual level like in human societies. Culture did not emerge from phenotypic emancipation but it can boost it e.g. through learning and comparison between individual’s values, performances or wealth within societies. Culture may support information favoring fitness as well as phenotypic emancipation in a parallel and sometimes antagonistic way, partly inducing Darwinian puzzles. So what are the genetic, epigenetic, behavioral, or cultural bases of each strategy of human/nonhuman interactions in our five conservation scenarios and in the associated evolutionary transitions? This is a key question raised by our perspective. But this human phenotypic emancipation has a second major consequence. It implies to put intrinsic value on each individual well-being beyond their role in the human evolutionary trajectory. It thus prevents any radical and purely technical answer that would shape the destiny of human beings without respect for human rights. In our perspective, we pointed out the reductionism and short-sighted views of synthetic biology and gene drive for biodiversity management. We only considered them for ex situ R&D “as a very last resort to reduce our evolutionary impacts on” nonhumans evolutionary trajectories. No doubt that such technical answer would be an even more frightening “Pandora’s box” for human individuals and societies. Even if evocentric conservation asks the question of our own evolution, gene drive and transhumanism remain technical approaches without ethical framework and constitute terrifying dead ends. History is full of well-intended tragedies. As French, we know that true evocentric conservation can only be compatible with “Liberté Egalité Fraternité”. This is why it is so challenging and inspiring.


“Repair the past and prepare the future.” — Anonymous.

I thank the authors for so thoughtfully responding to my eLetter. These are the kinds of world-wide discussions we need. I’ll try to be brief…

First, I would hope to avoid bringing human “souls” into the discussion, even briefly or figuratively. There is no evidence for souls, and thinking there is anything even vaguely supernatural about humans makes it so much more difficult, if not impossible, to formulate and perhaps someday implement even a maximally moral program of intentional evolution aimed at producing a future Homo bloodline, hopefully in good time, that is even close to being psychologically capable of engaging in EvoCentric conservation practices, or, for example, carrying out E.O. Wilson’s recent prescription for sustainability based on letting half the planet, including the parts that offer good human habitat, go wild. If we keep promoting the idea that we are some kind of Holy Species, then the apparent immorality of lowly science and secular society messing with our genetic constitution, even in the most carefully thought out and evidence-based ways, increases, in the eyes of many, ten thousand fold, to throw out a gross quantitative estimate…

Second, we humans currently are under a tremendous variety of selection pressures. Natural selection continues to operate with a vengeance. Human culture, clearly part of the Earth’s selective environment, surely modifies it, often increasing the intensity of competition, selection’s engine, amongst humans and nonhumans.

But, to think that we have escaped in any significant way from our long and conservative genetic heritage, or that culture somehow would cause selection to stop concentrating on promoting the most effective replicators as it has always done, is pure wish-thinking. Complex contingent altruism in its various forms exists, of course, but merely as ways humans have evolved to use, directly or indirectly, to help maximize individual lifetime inclusive fitness. If we are worried about human rights, and of course we are (in general, far too contingently), please note that our current and past designer, natural selection, does not care about them at all, per se. Look at how human minds actually operate in situ.

The one way to have any chance of becoming a species with more significantly more conscience and a more consistent and fundamental concern for universal human rights is by actively DENYING natural selection continuing sole rights to determine the adaptive design of the human psyche. Terrifying outcomes of genetic intervention in human intrapsychic design? The terror of the situation is already here, a naturally selected inevitability. Can we be responsible enough to reverse it? With deep respect. — PJW