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The Genomic Bodhisattva

Genomic bodhisattva

David Pearce wants to end your suffering. His manifesto “The Hedonistic Imperative” promises a future where humans live in high-functioning superhappy states devoid of pain and anxiety. For Pearce, the great shift to a hedonic society will come about by genetic intervention: “Gene therapy will be targeted both on somatic cells and, with even greater forethought, the germline. If cunningly applied, a combination of the cellular enlargement of the mesolimbic dopamine system, selectively enhanced metabolic function of key intra-cellular sub-types of opioidergic and serotonergic pathways, and the disablement of several countervailing inhibitory feedback processes will put in place the biomolecular architecture for a major transition in human evolution.…”

Pearce’s intellectual embrace of paradise engineering places him on the cusp of a modern philosophical movement that eschews Darwinian fatalism and looks to a post-Darwinian future where humans are freed from the cynical bonds of genetic expression and natural selection. In a post-Darwinian future where we are empowered by technology to live however we choose, how will we choose to live? According to Pearce, when all is said and done we will simply choose to be happy.

A prolific writer who admits to typing with one finger, Pearce is a reserved man with precise and delicate sensibilities. As a third-generation vegetarian and an animal rights activist he seems like a man who literally wouldn’t harm a fly, and might even go out of his way to make sure the fly is having a good day. His intimate knowledge of cognitive theory, designer pharmacology, and genetic engineering make him a perfect candidate for a comic book supervillain, but his intentions are those of a living bodhisattva. And while Pearce can write at length about his philosophy and the future of the human race, he is very reserved and protected when it comes to talking about himself. One gets the sense that his genius and passion to abolish suffering comes from a place of deep personal sadness, but if that is the case he’s not letting on. The anguish of David Pearce, the man, is not important. But the words of David Pearce, the philosopher, make him the closest thing we have to a 21st century Buddha.

h+: Your philosophy of bringing an end to suffering echoes the goals of the Buddha. What provoked you to take the Buddha’s philosophy to the most extreme interpretation?

DAVID PEARCE: “May all that have life be delivered from suffering,” said Gautama Buddha. But is this scientifically feasible?

As a teenager, I read The Selfish Gene. Suffering exists only because it helps our DNA leave more copies of itself. I also stumbled across the electrode studies of Olds and Milner on the reward centers of the brain. Uniquely, the experience of pure pleasure shows no physiological tolerance: an important clue. Yet a whole civilization based on intracranial self-stimulation doesn’t seem sociologically feasible. Only two other options struck me as viable: pharmacology and genetic engineering. It’s hard to see how therapeutic drugs could abolish mental and physical pain altogether unless we’re willing to medicate our children from birth. By contrast, germline gene-therapy can potentially deliver a cure.

Study of the genetics of mood disorders convinced me that we could edit our source code to recalibrate the hedonic treadmill. In principle, postgenomic medicine can genetically alter our “hedonic set-point” so we enjoy life-long mental health based on gradients of intelligent bliss. A new system of motivation may emerge. More practically, the imminent reproductive revolution of designer babies is likely to exert immense selection pressure in favor of “happy” genotypes.

Of course transhumanists have more ambitious goals than abolishing suffering. Thus I predict our super-intelligent descendants will be fired by gradients of bliss orders of magnitude richer than today’s peak experiences every moment of their quasi-immortal lives. But getting rid of all (involuntary) suffering strikes me as the basis of any future civilization. I can’t conceive anything more morally urgent.

Toddler Expressing Excitementh+: Growing up, what was the most intense suffering you had to endure, and would you retroactively erase the trauma of those memories if you could?

DP: Sadness can be very personal. So I’m going to be boringly tight-lipped. Sorry. I’ll just say that in the future I think all bad memories will be selectively erased, or at least emotionally defanged after any valuable lessons have been drawn. Actually, I think all mediocre memories will be erasable too — and that includes everything from the Darwinian era. Memories of today’s peak experiences will seem banal compared to the textures of everyday life centuries hence. Improved neuroscanning technology will shortly enable us to identify the molecular signature(s) of pure bliss and genetically “over-express” its substrates. Neuroscientists are already homing in on the twin cubic-millimetre sized “hedonic hotspots” in the ventral pallidum and nucleus accumbens of the rodent brain. The equivalent hedonic hotspots in humans may be as large as a cubic centimeter. I suspect they hold the gene expression profile of what makes life seem worth living. If so, there is scope for refinement and intelligent amplification. Our uglier Darwinian emotions can be abolished. Then we can lead lives truly worth remembering.

h+: Isn’t the goal of cessation of pain and suffering a bit wimpy? Shouldn’t every organism be resilient enough to take some pain and suffering over a normal lifetime?

DP: Intuitively, one might indeed suppose that lifelong bliss would make us weak. Contrast, for instance, the Eloi with the Morlocks in H.G. Well’s The Time Machine. In practice, the opposite is true. “That which does not crush me makes me stronger,” said Nietzsche, but the best way to make ourselves stronger short of becoming cyborgs is to amplify our pleasure circuitry and enhance our capacity to anticipate reward. Experimentally, it can be shown that enhancing mesolimbic dopamine function doesn’t just make us happier: it also enriches willpower and motivation. This is how novel antidepressants are tested: if effective, they reverse learned helplessness and behavioral despair of clinical depression, the plight of hundreds of millions of people in the world today. Regrettably, low mood is bound up with psychological and physical weakness, just as popular stereotype suggests. Superhappiness confers superhuman resilience. So enriching our reward circuitry promises to enhance our capacity to cope with stress and adversity even as their incidence and severity diminish. Biotech can empower us to become supermen — not in the callous sense of Nietzschean Übermenschen, since our enhanced empathetic capacity can extend to all sentient beings, but in the sense of an indomitable strength of mind. Sadly, millions of people today feel hopelessly crushed by life.

h+: How do you think the Buddha would feel about using technology like drugs or genetic engineering as a means towards ending human suffering?

DP: It’s hard to reconstruct the psychology of a guy who has been dead for 2500 years. Yet Gautama Buddha’s interest clearly lay in finding the most effective techniques to end suffering, not in delivering some God-given truth. Buddhism isn’t like revealed religion. Gautama Buddha seems to have been pragmatic. Let’s try what works. If presented with contemporary biotechnology, I doubt he’d insist we go though the traumas of thousands of rounds of rebirth. I think he’d embrace genetic medicine as a priceless gift and urge us to extend its use to ensure the welfare of all sentient beings, not just ourselves.

Sign that says Stop Eating Animalsh+: You’re an animal rights activist and a vegan. How do you think protein should be supplied in the future?

DP: Jewish Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer described life for factory-farmed animals as “an eternal Treblinka”: a world of concentration camps extermination camps and industrialized mass-killing. Strip away our ingrained anthropocentric bias, and what we do to other sentient beings is barbaric. Combating great evil justifies heroic personal sacrifice; going vegan entails mild personal inconvenience. The non-human animals we factory-farm and kill are functionally akin to human babies and toddlers. Babies and toddlers need looking after, not liberating. As the master species we have a duty of care to lesser beings, just as we have a duty of care to vulnerable and handicapped humans. As our mastery of technology matures, I think we need to build a cross-species global analogue of the welfare state.

Tentatively, I predict that next century and beyond “natural” meat will be reckoned no more legally or socially acceptable than a diet based on human flesh. Most people with a taste for the stuff may eat in vitro gourmet steaks and the like — cultured meat that will taste richer in flavor and texture than flesh from our butchered cousins. Genetically-engineered vatfood doesn’t sound appetizing under that description. But when “vegetarian meat” is properly branded and marketed, who will deliberately choose the bloodstained option if cheaper and tastier cruelty-free products are available? Estimating timescales for any worldwide changeover to a civilized diet is obviously tricky. Currently tissue scientists can’t culture anything tastier than mincemeat. Yet in theory mankind could make the transition to veganism mid-century or so as the switch to cheaper, healthier, mass-produced cultured meat gathers pace. I’m cynical enough to believe the cost issue will be critical, but I also believe (naively?) that moral awareness may play a small but significant role. Fortunately, the technology should prove scalable. In the meantime, anyone who wants to help accelerate the global transition to a cruelty-free diet might like to support New Harvest, the world’s first nonprofit research organization working to develop cultured meat.

h+: For some people, pain is their most intense form of pleasure, and in a world without suffering pain may become the ultimate taboo designer experience. By abolishing suffering, don’t we risk accidentally rebranding it as something trendy and desirable?

DP: Masochists don’t enjoy the raw pain of getting their fingers caught in the door any more than you or me. However, certain ritualized forms of dominant and submissive behavior can trigger endogenous opioid release that is acutely pleasurable. In the future, masochists and others who relish such “painful” activities can enrich the quality of their experience by editing out the nasty bits and enhancing the most rewarding. Nothing valuable need be lost. I don’t normally dwell on modes of post-human sensualism because I fear doing so risks undermining the moral seriousness of the abolitionist project. For what it’s worth, I think future sexuality will make today’s wildest eroticism seem like light foreplay.

h+: You use MDMA consciousness as a benchmark for bliss and empathy. But like alcohol intoxication, I’ve seen people on MDMA being very dismissive to people with real problems while thinking they were being empathetic and compassionate. Couldn’t being too happy in the face of real problems be considered a form of shallowness or self-delusion?

Ecstasy Pills (MDMA)DP: Taking MDMA (Ecstasy) may be little better than glue-sniffing compared to mental health in an era of mature postgenomic medicine. But “empathogens” like MDMA are a reminder that not all euphoriants promote selfish behavior. Ethically, it’s (presumably) preferable to seek heightened empathy and sometimes fail rather than not bother to empathize at all. MDMA-induced intensity of emotional release also stands in contrast to the shallowness induced by “psychic anaesthetizers” like the ill-named SSRI antidepressants. Alas, you’re right to point out how the rose-colored spectacles of Ecstasy users don’t guarantee acuity of insight or accuracy of social perception. The “penicillin of the soul” is no magic bullet. Getting “loved up” is good for communing with other loved up users, but it’s not a recipe for solving the deeper problems of non-users… or life on Monday morning. Even when safe and sustainable empathogens can be developed, pure compassion won’t cure cancer, solve the AIDS crisis or reverse the ravages of aging. Such complex, multi-faceted medical problems need rigorous scientific research. To say this isn’t to devalue the “magic” of MDMA. In a better world, the rose-colored spectacles induced by MDMA-like states may be as socially perceptive as the most hard-edged “depressive realism” of contemporary cynics. In the meantime, Darwinian consciousness is prudent for a Darwinian world.

h+: Humans have violent predatory instincts wired into the pleasure/ reward center that civilization no longer finds useful. We repress these instincts through behavioral conditioning but they still present themselves as pathologies in mentally unstable people. Would you support proactive gene modification to abolish these predatory instincts to make humans more docile?

DP: Proactive gene-modification to enrich our capacity for empathy strikes me as morally admirable. “Docile” is a loaded word; if you’d said “pacific” instead, I’d agree. In an era of weapons of mass destruction and bioterrorism, human survival may even depend on it. Until humans establish self-sustaining bases beyond the Earth on the Moon and Mars, the extinction of intelligent life itself is a non-negligible possibility. Britain’s Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, estimates the probability of human extinction before the year 2100 is around 50 percent! The world’s predators aren’t confined to violent criminals or the mentally ill: they include “statesmen” holding senior positions of political and military power. The genetic source of most human predatory behavior has been identified: the Y chromosome. However, this is one risk factor we’re probably stuck with for a long time to come. Competitive alpha male dominance behavior is perhaps the greatest underlying threat to what we call civilization. Human history to date attests to the gruesome effects of testosterone-driven male behavior. Socialization — on its own — seems inadequate.

Scenarios of pro-social genetic modification may or may not work; but they aren’t purely hypothetical. Humanity is on the brink of a reproductive revolution. Within the next few decades, prospective parents will increasingly choose the genetic design-specifications of their future children via preimplantation diagnosis. In the absence of a regulatory framework, one may hope most parents will choose genotypes for loving, empathetic children and decline to choose “sociopathic” alleles, e.g. the less active “warrior gene” variant of monoamine oxidase A, which is associated with anti-social and violent behavior. A lot of our nastier alleles/allelic combinations were genetically adaptive in the ancestral environment. They may exert a potentially catastrophic influence now. At the risk of sounding like some crude genetic determinist, it may eventually be possible to edit out some of our more sinister code and enhance the expression of the pro-social. One example here would be oxytocin, the “trust hormone,” recently shown to be copiously released by taking MDMA. Enriching long-term oxytocin function could make us naturally more honest with each other — not just more trusting but more trustworthy. Unfortunately, indiscriminate amplification of oxytocin function would only work if it were universal. Its use would make a powerful instrument of social control and an ideal tool for predators. Today, sadly, we often have good reason to be suspicious of governments and of each other. So yes, pro-social drugs and gene therapies have numerous pitfalls. But somehow we need to bootstrap our way into becoming civilized.

h+: Pleasure pathways are primed by high risk/reward behaviors. As suffering decreases this risk/reward instinct becomes less of a motivator. This means humans will be progressively less likely to take big risks to reap greater rewards. Is this a positive shift in human behavior, and in this shift are we losing something uniquely adventurous and impulsive about the human spirit?

…dopaminergic and opioid enhancement can be pleasurable… amplifying mesolimbic dopamine function leads to increased exploratory behavior… Gaining control of our own reward circuitry allows a choice…

DP: We live in an era when advanced technology poses existential and global catastrophic risks. Any interventions that promise to reduce our propensity to risk-taking should be seriously evaluated. As you note, however, there are subtler risks to the future of humanity than the apocalyptic scenarios well-known futurists discuss. Some kind of botched paradise engineering might lock humanity into a second-rate utopia of the sort you describe. A stagnant world of soma-like contentment is very different from a world animated by heritable gradients of bliss. How can humanity guard against inadvertently creating some other kind of Brave New World that blocks the fullest expression of life in the universe?

One possible answer is that postgenomic medicine will let us choose not just our normal baseline of happiness, but also our baseline of “adventurousness.” Thus both dopaminergic and opioid enhancement can be pleasurable, but amplifying mesolimbic dopamine function leads to increased exploratory behavior, whereas long-term enhancement of mu opioid function alone leads to greater quiescence. Gaining full control of our own reward circuitry allows a choice of what kind of person one wants to be — an adventurous extrovert or thoughtful introvert, for instance. I’m not really satisfied with this answer because it’s unclear whether temperamental “adventurousness” can be adequately distinguished from recklessness. I’d simply argue that no one should be forced to suffer as now for the sake of an abstraction like “the human spirit.”

h+: There’s an old saying that Utopia is ultimately unattainable because no matter how perfect things are, people will always find something to complain about. How do we modify human behavior to trim back the complainers?

DP: Discontented people have arguably been the motor of human development. This is one reason why it may be prudent to recalibrate our hedonic treadmill rather than dismantle it altogether. When we enjoy gradients of lifelong bliss, the functional analogues of discontent can drive (post)human progress. Maybe getting rid of suffering isn’t the culmination of civilization, just the start.

James Kent is the former publisher of Psychedelic Illuminations and Trip Magazine. He currently edits DoseNation.com, a drug blog featuring news, humor and commentary.