EVOLUTION AND DEATH
Of all the goals transhumanism seeks to attain, the one that gets reported the most is almost certainly the quest to end aging. The question is always asked: Should we be seeking to dramatically extend our lifespans, possibly to the extent of living forever?
Invariably, articles on radical life extension prompt people to reply in comments, not always in support of the proposal to try and become immortal. Some of those commentators dismiss the whole idea as nonsense, and point out that the dream of immortality is an ancient one whose history is full of deluded folk who thought they were on the brink of life forevermore but who all died, nevertheless. But others recognise that advances in modern medicine and areas like stem cell therapy, genetic engineering and nanomedicine do have a reasonable chance of significantly extending the number of years we get to spend as fit and healthy human beings. Having recognised that possibility, they raise issues which they believe make the pursuit of long life inadvisable.
Anyone who has read a few articles on radical life extension will probably be familiar with these objections. Life would be boring if it went on too long; there are not enough resources to support an immortal race; evolution depends on death and if death were eliminated nothing would ever change.
Now, I do not intend to spend much time questioning the first two assumptions. But that last one- evolution depends on death- is an interesting one. Is it true? Does evolution depend on death? It is certainly true that death has been a major part of life throughout evolutionary history. Nature programs depict the dispassionate way in which nature selects those who are fittest by showing hapless creatures meeting their demise at the teeth and claws of some predator, and it is said that 99% of the species that ever lived are now extinct.
However, the fact that death has been dominant throughout evolutionary history does not necessarily mean it is an essential aspect of the system. It could be that evolution does not ‘care’ about eliminating death (if one may use anthropocentric terms like ‘care’ when talking about a mindless process like natural selection). Richard Dawkins, in his book ‘The Ancestor’s Tale’, searched for the essential requirement of any evolutionary process and, as it turns out, it is not death. So, what is it?
In his own words, he wrote:
“We can give the key ingredient a minimalist name to express the kind of thing it must have been. That name is heredity. We should not be seeking the origin of life, which is vague and undefined, but the origin of heredity- true heredity, and that means something very precise”.
What, then, is true heredity?
True heredity means the inheritance of differences among anything that replicates. Fire, for instance, does not have true heredity because although fire can be said to replicate (put a stick into a flame and you get two flames) the fire does not get any of its characteristics from the parent flame, but instead acquires things like its color, how much it crackles, from environmental factors like the kind of fuel being used, the strength of the wind and so on. On the other hand, people do have true heredity because children tend to resemble their parents more than they do other members of the same species.
Heredity is what natural selection needs to get going. A hypothetical replicating entity which never made mistakes in the copying process could never kick-start an evolutionary process, for every descendant would be the same and there would be no variation to choose from. But once differences get passed on down the generations, and those differences sometimes just happen to provide an advantage to those who possess it, natural selection can select for entities with that characteristic.
What is really essential for evolution, then, is the ability to favour advantageous characteristics and cause those characteristics to become more prevalent. It is not necessary for the less advantageous characteristics to die out. We can see this is so by considering technology. Take two competing technological devices, such as guitars by Les Paul and guitars by Fender. Suppose, due to whatever reason, Fender guitars are much more successful and so many more copies of their guitars are required by the market. This would make Fender guitars more evolutionarily successful than Les Paul guitars, because so many more Fenders are being manufactured and sold than Les Paul’s.
But that does not mean to say Les Paul guitars have to go ‘extinct’. They can still exist; people may still want them. It is just that more people want a Fender. This is true of any technology. It is actually pretty rare that any particular technology goes completely extinct. The norm is for a few technologies to become very successful and so become widespread throughout the market, while others persist in more niche areas. Even if there were no ‘death’ at all in technological evolution and every invention still existed (even if in exceedingly tiny numbers) that would not end technological evolution provided heredity existed and beneficial characteristics were more prevalent in marketplace.
Similarly, even if transhumanity did somehow manage to rid the world of death and obtain life everlasting, the evolutionary process would still continue wherever there is heredity and a mechanism for favouring advantageous characteristics. Science, technology, philosophy, art, all these provide much scope for evolutionary pressures to drive change. One should not overplay the similarity between natural selection and cultural/ technological evolution. These are two different evolutionary forces with only some similarities between them. But those differences need not concern us here. All that matters is that death is irrelevant to any evolutionary process. It really does not ‘care’ if there is death or not. All evolution requires is heredity and all it needs to persist is the prevalence of favoured characteristics over less-favoured ones.
So, let us not worry that ending death will put the breaks on evolution, because it simply will not. All it means is that, should we be fortunate enough to be among the first immortals, we will get to personally experience the changes awaiting us as we journey into the indefinite future.