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Is Drug Addiction Part of Human Evolution?

[Editor’s note: I found Sasha’s ideas particularly relevant today, the day after two states in the U.S. (Colorado and Washington) legalized recreational use of cannabis. It is my view that recreational drug use is an adult decision which free thinking humans should support as an individual choice and right. Further it is an important aspect of Freedom of Consciousness and therefore Freedom of Personal Enhancement. These are in my view both important rights which all Transhumanists should support. With that said, we have to also recognize that misuse of substances can be harmful and some individuals struggle with substance addiction on a daily basis. I found it notable however that on the eve of the 2012 Presidential Election, Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney spoke out against chemical performance enhancement in sports on national television (Monday Night Football). And yet many other forms of dangerous substance use are accepted without thought in our society. It seems that despite this small victory with legal cannabis, laws and beliefs about chemical enhancement of the mind and body will remain confused and controversial.]

The human mind may be a wondrous and expansive thing that is constantly learning and adapting itself to the changing universe that surrounds us. Nonetheless human beings have a habit of becoming unsatisfied with our surroundings. Dealing with mental anguish and boredom has always been one of our greatest challenges as a species. To meet these challenges many of us have resorted to the use of recreational drugs in an effort to either expand our minds, embrace new experiences or simply to nullify the pain that life has inflicted upon us. Since the time of the ancient Egyptians mankind has sought out, cultivated and harvested a wide variety of recreational drugs to satisfy our cravings, alleviate our shortcomings and nullify our insecurities. The more advanced we evolve as a species the more sophisticated and widespread our involvement in the drug culture. But if we are to believe the teachings of Darwin about evolution, the strongest of the species will always thrive and dominate over the weaker of the species. Hence, given the proliferation of drug use with the technological advancement of our society, we must ask ourselves some fundamental questions. Is the use of recreational drugs just part of the human condition, and to that end is drug addiction actually part of our natural evolution as a species?

Regardless of your attitude to drugs you cannot argue that over thousands of years they have become increasingly diverse and prevalent in our society. Perhaps it is the growth in the variety of drugs and their use that has seen a very modern phenomenon emerge; the moralization and strict legal classification of drugs and their users. This recent trend of ascribing a moral label to drugs has meant that now there are basically two types of drugs that exist in the world. In the black and white world of our politically correct society drugs are classified as either medicinal or recreational in nature. Politicians, religious groups, social welfare groups and lawmakers have drawn a very distinct line in the sand between drugs that are good and drugs that are bad. Drugs that are medicinal in nature (eg: modern pharmaceutical drugs) are generally considered good for us and hence are classified as legal. In general recreational drugs are considered to be bad for us and are hence deemed illegal. The only recreational drugs that are legal are the ones that are so entrenched in our history and culture they are too hard to eliminate from society (eg: alcohol, coffee and tobacco).

But is it really that simple? Have we forgotten that everything and everybody in this world cannot be pigeonholed so easily? Many recreational drugs also have medicinal applications and many medicinal drugs also have their recreational uses. If a drug only had bad effects on both mind and body then there is no way that its use and popularity could grow, regardless of being classified as medicinal or recreational. Drug addiction after all is the addiction to mental stimulus, psychological relief or physical benefit, or sometimes a combination of all three. The perpetual addictive use of any drug is the direct result that a drugs perceived benefit outweighs its negative effects for the user. Every drug, whether natural or manmade, has its undoubted benefits and also unwanted side effects. In truth all drugs exist in a grey continuum and drug addiction should only be viewed as a mental or physical health issue rather than any moral or legal indiscretion by the user. To classify any drug as purely good or bad, legal or illegal, moral or immoral, is a futile attempt to fit a square peg in a round hole filled with sand. Even if you can reshape the peg it will never fit into the hole, no matter how hard you try.

Every drug has a unique mix of both good and bad points regardless of moral or legal classification. And the addictiveness of a drug certainly does not recognise any moral or legal boundaries. Legal drugs such as alcohol, tobacco, caffeine and prescription pain relievers are some of the most addictive drugs known to mankind. So shouldn’t the evaluation and classification of any particular drug be based on the overall balance of the positives versus the negatives? And irrespective of the overall benefit of a drug is it morally right to classify its users as social undesirables and criminals? Are we right to persecute and imprison the manufacturers, sellers and users of a particular drug just because its primary application is currently deemed to be recreational and bad instead of medicinal and good?

Furthermore the criminalization of recreational drugs can only be considered inconsistent, hypocritical and counterproductive at best. Alcohol, despite being legal in all western societies, has more undesirable side effects than almost any recreational drug around. In addition to causing brain and liver damage alcohol can also produce violent social behaviour and is the number one cause of domestic abuse and murder in the US. In contrast marijuana is deemed an illegal drug in most western countries. However many medical doctors now consider it to be a valuable tool for the relief of back pain and other chronic medical conditions. No doubt for many users there is the common side-effect of becoming lazy and losing personal drive. But is this actually a bad thing for society when “stoners” don’t affect others negatively and people who are stoned tend to laugh more than people who are straight? If anything this is simply an indication of happiness and contentment. There is not a single reported case of marijuana ever causing a serious violent crime or murder in itself and hence the social damage of marijuana can be considered no worse than another legal drug in tobacco. If I was locked in a room with a bunch of unstable violent individuals I would certainly prefer them to be smoking weed than drinking shots or chasing beers.

It seems that naïve social stigma and uneducated generalizations are now the primary drivers for the criminalization of many recreational drugs. The very concept of a “gateway” drug is as ill-informed a notion as any legal classification of a drug. In fact the only proven gateway is the stigma associated with the criminalization of a drug itself. Once someone has stepped over the legal line their view on illegal drugs in general has forever changed. Use of an illegal drug that has minimal side-effects such as marijuana can often result in a less than realistic view of the side-effects relating to other more serious drugs such as cocaine, ecstasy and heroine. As with the failed alcohol prohibition of the 1930’s it could be that the criminalization of many drugs is actually making them more popular and widespread. People see that the criminalization of marijuana is hypocritical when compared to alcohol, and consequently many assume that the criminalization of any drug is hypocritical……..and they may well be right.

The aim of this article is primarily to evaluate whether drug addiction is an unnatural and undesirable aspect of modern society or just part of our natural evolution as a species. But before we tackle this issue let’s take a look at the relative addictiveness of both legal and illegal drugs. There is a plethora of scientific studies on this subject matter and I have found widespread agreement on the relative addictiveness of the various drugs in the literature. The most quoted analyses are those published by John Hastings for In Health magazine, and Dr Jack Henningfield (PhD) and Dr Neal Benowitz (MD) who both published famous articles for the New York Times. Below is a chart showing the relative level of addictiveness (rating from 0 to 100%) for the most popular drugs in use today.  Legal drugs are indicated in blue while illegal drugs are indicated in red.

The fact that the two most addictive drugs in use today are both legal is damning evidence against criminalization. Oxycodone is a prescription analgesic opioid that is often combined with paracetamol or aspirin for the relief of both acute and chronic pain. It is important to note that Oxycodone is rarely marketed under its own name but under the name of the other drugs it is combined with. Possessing an incredible 99% likelihood of addiction its widespread use throughout the medical community has spawned a national health epidemic. As with most drugs the more you take the less effective it becomes which in turn increases consumption which has swelled the bank accounts of the big pharmaceutical companies. Big Pharma insiders often call oxycodone the gift that keeps on giving and they spend billions of dollars in subtle marketing against drug free alternative medicines for pain relief. Oxycodone’s side effects include severe mood changes, depression, fainting, seizures, difficulty swallowing, fatigue, nausea, headache, anxiety and constipation. All in all it is a cure that can often be worse than the initial ailment it is designed to relieve. The next most addictive drug is tobacco with very short term “benefits” including a rise in blood pressure and the initial stimulation followed by the slow relaxation of brain activity. However the long term side effects of tobacco are well known and obviously quite devastating. Consequently the legalization of a drug appears to have nothing to do with its perceived benefits and side effects.

We note that caffeine and cocaine compare very well against each other in terms of perceived benefits, undesirable side effects and level of addictiveness. An objective view, supported by the South American Indians who have been using both cocaine and caffeine for thousands of years, is that cocaine is a stronger and more refined equivalent of caffeine. Yet one is deemed to be legal and one is deemed to be illegal. Moreover the least addictive drugs we found in our study were all illegal recreational drugs. All legally prescribed “mood” drugs such as Diazepam, Xanax and a plethora of anti-depressants have an addictiveness rating well above 50%. In contrast “soft” illegal drugs such as marijuana, ecstasy, LSD and magic mushrooms all had an addictiveness rating well below 50%. No doubt many addictive drugs have less severe side effects than many less additive drugs. And each person’s susceptibility to a particular drug varies with personality, preconceived biases and social environment. Nonetheless the hypocrisy of drug criminalization is obvious to any objective observer of the scientific data. [Editor’s note: drugs can fuel scientific and intellectual progress, see Caffeine and the Coming of the Enlightenment” by Roger Schmidt]

The point of all this discussion about the criminalization of drugs is to strip away the myths and social stigma relating to recreational drugs to focus on the real issues at hand. Regardless of a particular drugs addictiveness, side effects or legal classification this author believes that it is everyone’s democratic right to use whatever drug they want on themselves…. as long as it does not adversely affect the wellbeing of others. And hence we come to the issue of the counterproductive nature of the criminalization of drugs. By deeming the manufacturers, sellers and users of illegal recreational drugs as criminals we are unfairly judging them based on our own preconceived notions of drug use that have no basis in scientific fact or social data. Furthermore we are creating a society that spends billions of dollars fighting a war against people who are not our real enemies.

The immense cost of fighting and policing a war against drugs has had a hugely negative impact on our society as a whole. It has placed a massive financial burden on all governments in terms of providing sufficient policing and prison assets to administer these ill-conceived laws.  Worst of all it has created a huge underclass of people who are now deemed to be criminals simply because of their socio-economic environment and their level of exposure to illegal drug use. Imprisoning these people does not stop them using or selling the drug that put them in prison. It simply exposes them to real criminals and harder drugs that are readily accessible in prison. Moreover, by making a drug illegal, we have sacrificed our ability to monitor, administer and even tax its use. Criminalization of a drug only ever helps the real criminals and gives them an extra product to market and sell to society. If all recreational drugs were made legal and properly monitored and taxed like prescription drugs then the US government would be able to wipe out its massive deficit by the end of the decade. It would also be able to devote more dollars to much needed drug rehabilitation and care activities.

Given the recent epidemic growth of recreational drug addiction, despite all efforts by governments to stop it, the real issue now becomes one of weighing their psychological benefits against their undesirable side effects. We need to evaluate why we take drugs as a society and whether drug use it actually just an unavoidable part of the natural human condition. We all assume that long term drug use and addiction is bad because of the negative side-effects that can destroy. However we easily overlook this view when either medical doctors prescribe them to us or bartenders pour us our favourite beverage. We then tell ourselves that drug use is ok as long as it is used in moderation. But is taking drugs in moderation really within our control given the high level of addictiveness that many of these drugs possess? For many people once exposed to the perceived benefits of a drug their addiction is out of their control, regardless of the side effects.

Now that we have removed the social, legal and moral divide between medical and recreation drugs we can start to evaluate societies’ need for drugs as a whole. Whether a drug is used for a medical ailment, a psychological condition, an emotional crutch to lean against or a social need to fit in it does not really matter. What matters is that our reliance on drugs of one sort or another has always been part of the human condition. Moreover our desire and ability to develop newer, better and more powerful drugs to satiate our medical, psychological and recreational needs is now growing at an alarming rate. It can be misleading to evaluate our growing desire for and dependence on drugs by looking at any single drug because new drugs often replace old drugs and some drugs are more effectively policed than others. Nonetheless the prescription pain reliever Oxycodone is of particular interest. Not only is it the most addictive drug in the world, in the US it is now the cause of more deaths from overdose each year than are caused by cocaine, heroin and all the other illegal drugs combined.  The explosive growth in the consumption of Oxycodone is shown in the adjacent graph

The fact that such an addictive and dangerous opioid drug can be encouraged and prescribed by the global medical community to this extent is indicative of our most inner desires and instinctive needs. As a society most of us did not even know that we needed access to yet another more powerful pain reliever. However it seems the politicians, the regulators, the medical community and the pharmaceutical companies all understood this basic inbuilt desire of ours for a better more addictive pain reliever. That is why they have regulated and ensured that global stocks of oxycodone have always outstripped demand and the drug remains affordable to the vast majority of us (stocks are currently at nearly double the annual consumption rate).

We spend so much money and effort as a society to reduce our dependence on illegal recreational drugs. And then, almost unknowingly, we make sure that we undermine these efforts by adopting a much more dangerous and addictive legal alternative. So the obvious conclusion to all this hypocrisy is that humans as a species are unconsciously striving to become more drug addicted, no matter what road blocks we consciously try to put in our own way. We seem to have an inbuilt desire and need to always develop newer more powerful drugs that will ensure our ever increasing dependence on them. Drug addiction in humans is increasing rapidly and our ability to halt this trend appears to be just a symbolic token effort.

So now we come to the crux of the matter. If our every instinct as a society and species is to increase our reliance on addictive drugs, may drug addiction in fact be a natural and unavoidable part of our evolution? And if this is the case will the use of new wonder drugs be our path forward into the realm of trans-humanism?

There exist many possible technological paths forward towards trans-human evolution. One such path proposed is the “digitization” of our minds, experiences and personality into a complex software algorithm that acts as a virtual person. If the essence of our minds can be transferred into a computer software program this could then be downloaded into a more impervious host than our current physical bodies such as a mechanical or robotic body. Moreover these “people programs” could ultimately exist in a virtual world on a global computer network rather than in the physical world. This would have many advantages including the removal of physical movement limitations as well as the more efficient use of the world’s energy and material resources.

Another more viable and socially acceptable path towards immortality may be via the development of super-human drugs that stop our body from aging and cure us of all potential diseases and infections. Anabolic steroids are now regularly used by professional athletes to strengthen their bodies and improve their performance, despite having some negative health effects. However the recent unlocking of the human genome means that such anti-aging and cure-all drugs might be just around the corner. New “brain drugs” have already been developed that can dramatically increase our intelligence and memory which is no doubt a step up the evolutionary ladder. And genetically coded drugs that are perfectly tailored to our individual strengths and weaknesses are already in development.

If all these new super drugs offer such incredible benefits to our intelligence, strength, longevity and health, it is very plausible that such drugs would also be highly addictive and may have some unwanted side effects. Furthermore there may come a time that we all possess an inbuilt drug synthesiser that can automatically manufacture and administers a huge variety of drugs to suit our physical and emotional needs at any one moment. If I was say exposed to a virus then I would automatically be administered a cure. If I hurt myself physically I would automatically be given a pain reliever. If I was bored or depressed I would automatically be treated with a dose of my preferred recreational drug. And if I could not figure out a challenging intellectual problem I could choose to increase my intelligence so that the problem suddenly became easier to solve.

If this is the case then it seems that our natural compulsion to both become addicted to drugs and to constantly develop new drugs may be an evolutionary indicator as to the best path forward. Human drug addiction could be viewed as simply part of our natural evolution and the most efficient path to take for survival of the fittest. Of course a similar argument could be made for the virtual software path to immortality given our recent addiction to everything computerized and internet based. I realize that I may have asked many more questions than I have answered in this article but hopefully it can provide a platform for future discussion.

If drug addiction is actually an instinctive part of human evolution, then immortality may closer to reality than we realize.