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Slow Evolution is Co-evolution

Part 1 of this article, published in The Land 5, described how advances in the converging technologies — genetic engineering, nanotechnology and robotics (GNR) — are taking humanity down a road that leads, ultimately, to the obsolescence of the human race.

Part 1 of this article, published in The Land 5, described how advances in the converging technologies — genetic engineering, nanotechnology and robotics (GNR) — are taking humanity down a road that leads, ultimately, to the obsolescence of the human race. Whilst we may not believe the most outspoken advocates of transhumanism, who maintain that humanity as we know it will transubstantiate into a race of computer-driven cyborgs by the second half of this century, the accelerating pace of developments in fields such as stem cell technology, animal human embryos, artificial organs, nanotechnics, military robots, brain-computer interface and virtual reality are worrying to those who prefer to see humanity remain a biological species co-evolving with the natural world.

The second part of this article is preoccupied with one main question: why ( Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski aside) is there relatively little resistance to the spread of these technologies? The question is all the more perplexing because there is one sector of the GNR armoury which has met with spirited opposition. Large parts of the world, including the UK and most of Europe, remain free of genetically modified crops, mainly as a result of popular resistance. In Britain, despite the best efforts of the government, an unlikely alliance of direct action environmentalists and Daily Mail readers has ensured that “Frankenstein foods” have been kept out of our fields and, for the most part out of our shops.

It is all the more curious then that genuinely Frankenstein activities — genetic modifications of humans for example by cloning human embryos, growing body parts, or creating organisms whose genetic make up is part human part animal (chimeras) — have been allowed to proceed, more or less without a murmur. Direct activists have sabotaged just about every GM crop trial that has taken place in the UK; but the Roslin Institute, which produced Dolly the cloned sheep and now conducts research into chimeric embryos, has remained unscathed. The UK Human Fertilization and Embryology Act, which opens the door to human/animal embryos, designer babies, saviour siblings and fatherless children has sailed through parliament without a hint of opposition from the green movement.

This discrepancy in attitudes towards crop and human bioengineering has not gone unnoticed by some biotech advocates, for example Dennis Avery of the Hudson Institute:

“There is a furore now over biotechnology in farming. Europe, which has more food than it needs, is trying to block the use of biotechnology for Africa and Asia, which have less food than they need. We are told that biotechnology in food is ‘playing God.’ (The same critics seem to believe that the use of biotechnology to cure genetic diseases for First World children is just fine.) Genetically engineered ‘golden rice’ can prevent the Vitamin A deficiency that causes blindness and even death for millions of small children in low-income rice cultures.” (1)

The species of emotional blackmail detectable here is common to arguments levelled both against those who oppose genetic engineering of plants and those who oppose genetic engineering of humans. But Avery is wrong to suggest that it is inconsistent or hypocritical to oppose GM crops whilst supporting human biotech. This is because while there is little doubt that biotech medicine can cure sick people, there is very considerable doubt whether GM crops carry any benefits for poor farmers. Take the much publicized Golden Rice argument which is hauled onto stage by Ray Kurzweil, Bjorn Lomborg and virtually every other advocate of biotechnology. None of them dare to pose the primary question: why are people who are getting enough rice not getting enough Vitamin A? The most widely acknowledged reason is that poor people’s diets have become less varied as a result of industrial monoculture, and “their diet has been reduced to rice and nothing else.” (2)

It is not hard to find Third World peasants who want their neighbourhood and lands to stay GM free — for example the members of the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (MST) who protested against Syngenta’s GM research in the state of Paraná (see page 19). The Ethiopian, Tewolde Egzhiaber, wrote an article criticizing the Golden Rice argument entitled: “Using the South to Promote Genetic Engineering in Europe”. (3)

It is harder to find people who argue that biotechnology doesn’t benefit sick individuals (although there is understandable resistance from deaf people and dwarves to the screening of embryos to eliminate genes for deafness and dwarfism). And it is harder still to look a diseased or disabled person in the face, especially if it is a friend or a loved one, and say, “well there may be a cure but I don’t think you should have it.”

It was for this reason that when, in June 2007 the US House of Representatives debated the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, the democrat Speaker, Nancy Pelosi wheeled disabled children into the House to be photographed being hugged by democrat politicians. The only politicians who can withstand that sort of emotional pressure are the kind who believe that God, in his wisdom and mercy, has ordained that 14 day embryos should not be murdered. Both Senate and Congress passed the Act, which authorized federal funding for embryo stem cell research, but it was vetoed by President Bush — a further triumph for the biotechnologists since most people in the world conclude that if Bush opposes stem cell research, then it must be OK. One of President Obama’s first acts will be to remove Bush’s veto. In her speech to the House, Nancy Pelosi announced that “science is a gift of God to all of us, and science has taken us to a place that is biblical in its power to cure, and that is the embryonic stem cell research.” (4)

The question this prompts is “where will science take us next?” or, for a shorter answer, where will it not take us? In the past year scientists have given us face transplants, artificial hearts which are part machine and part animal, and the test-tube culture of a complete windpipe — where do we stop? Do we pursue ever more “biblical” cures for human imperfections to the point where we are all living as long as Methusulah, and we are so perfectly artificial that we are no longer human? And if so, where do we put all these extra billions of humans who refuse to die, and what do we feed them on — nanofood?
Scientists milk the emotional persuasiveness of medical cure for all it is worth, habitually assuring us that their research is for the benefit of humanity, when it is plain that what drives most of them is their thirst for knowledge or acclaim. If saving lives were their main objective, their time and funding would be better spent providing people with clean water, promoting condoms or inventing a cheaper malaria net. There is a refreshing strain of Machiavellian honesty in this statement from James Watson, renowned for his discovery of DNA and his racist outbursts:

“I think we can talk principles forever, but what the public wants is not to be sick. And if we make them not sick, they’ll be on our side.” (5)

Watson is no doubt right and we can expect medical applications to be in the vanguard of biotechnological progress, while doubters remain mute through deference to the disadvantaged. Unfortunately a species whose evolutionary strategy is based on developing ever more technologically sophisticated cures for diseased individuals is favouring the survival of the unfittest, and stepping down a road that points towards biological extinction.

I Sing the Body Eclectic

One of the main problems is that, as US environmentalist Bill McKibben puts it, “the line between repair and enhancement is too murky to be meaningful.” We may start by growing replacement livers in test tubes, manufacturing prosthetic hearts or artificial blood, or weeding out genes that cause Alzheimers or obesity, and all for strictly remedial reasons. But since, especially in a capitalist market, there will be every incentive for developing these technologies to the highest standards, they will eventually outperform the biological originals. Synthetic blood will provide oxygen more efficiently than real blood; kids with selected genes will outperform their schoolmates in the classroom and on the sports field; obesity solutions will allow you to eat as much as you want of whatever food you like — as long as you can afford it.

Something of a watershed in human evolution was passed recently when paralympic champion sprinter Oscar Pistorius applied to compete in the Beijing able-bodied olympic games on his “Cheetah” (was the pun intended?) carbon fibre legs. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) refused him permission on the grounds that:

“Pistorius was able to run with his prosthetic blades at the same speed as the able bodied sprinters with about 25 percent less energy expenditure. As soon as a given speed is reached, running with the prosthetics needs less additional energy than running with natural limbs.” (6)

The IAAF was overruled by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, but Pistorius anyway failed to qualify for the South African olympic team, though he went on to win three gold medals in the paralympics. However, within a few years paralympic athletes might well be regularly outperforming able-bodied athletes. If bionic competitors are allowed in the olympics, within a couple of decades the entire event might be dominated by technologically or genetically enhanced athletes. On the other hand, if Pistorius and his successors are kept out then the able bodied olympics will gradually be eclipsed by the paralympics (though the able-bodied olympics might fight back by allowing the use of performance-enhancing drugs).

Disabled people are also likely to be setting the pace for advances in cyborg developments, particularly through the development of brain-computer interfaces, which enable a paralysed human to control a computer (and hence machinery) simply by thinking about it. Stephen Hawking, with his computerized voice-box is the iconic advocate of such technologies, but the paraplegic journalist John Hockenbury has provided more detailed reports of the advances. To date, scientists have managed to link a patient’s brain directly to a computer so that it can command the position of a cursor on a computer screen; another invention enables disabled people to stand erect on two wheels by conveying the natural balancing mechanism in their brain directly to the wheelchair’s computer.

Hockenbury believes that disabled people are in the vanguard of human evolution:

“Bodies are perhaps a somewhat arbitrary evolutionary solution to issues of mobility and communication. By this argument the brain has no particular preference for any physical configuration as long as functionality can be preserved . . . The brain-body-machine interface doesn’t seem to need the body as much as we believe it does. For those open to the possibility, the definition of human includes a whole range of biological-machine hybrids of which I am one . . . We hybrids are part of a universal redrafting of the human design specification.” (7)

Genetic and robotic advances for medical purposes are likely to continue without opposition for some time, because we sympathise with the predicament of the people they are designed to help. The danger is that we may soon find that the disabled have become more capable than ordinary humans, who, to survive in a competitive society, would then themselves need to become similarly enhanced. If we want to assure the viability and future of the human biological species we need to draw some lines before we reach this point. However disabled “hybrids” like Hockenbury are likely to object, using arguments like this one from the Cyborg Liberation Front:

“To relinquish the rights of a future being merely because he, she, or it has a higher percentage of machine parts than biological cell structure would be racist toward all humans who have prosthetic parts.” (8)

Well, arguably, it would be not racist, but speciesist, and it is interesting that the man who gave the world that ungainly word, animal rights activist Peter Singer, has weighed into the dispute advocating that reproductive genetic enhancement should be dispensed fairly by the government, for example by means of a state-run lottery. It is, I suppose, vaguely reassuring for future biological humans that at least some transhumanists are, like Singer, vegans. (9)


There is another factor which may explain why GM crops have been widely and semi-successfully opposed by the green left, whereas GM humans and other aspects of the GNR project have so far been let off fairly lightly. GM crops from the start have been propagated by a small number of trans-national corporations, such as Monsanto and Bayer, who have honed in on the technology specifically because of the opportunities it offers for them to establish an oligopoly over world seed supplies. It is as much their attempt to take control over people’s land and livelihoods as any environmental risk, that has provoked resistance from peasants in the Third World and Europe.

Most of the other applications of GNR, have been developed on a more decentralized basis. Innovations in nanotech and human biotech have come out of relatively small research departments run by small companies or universities, though that may change when the technologies become more established. But it is in the field of information technology that (notwithstanding Microsoft and Google) decentralization, or networking, has become not merely a modus operandi but an end in itself.

Thus Ray Kurzweil remarks:

“The advent of worldwide decentralized communication, epitomized by the Internet and cell phones has been a pervasive democratizing force. It was not Boris Yeltsin standing on a tank that overturned the 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev but rather the clandestine network of fax machines, photocopiers, video recorders and personal computers that broke decades of totalitarian control of information. The movement toward democracy and capitalism and the attendant economic growth that characterized the 1990s were all fuelled by the accelerating force of these person-to-person communication technologies.” (10)

Much the same comments have been made about the anti-globalization riots, particularly Seattle 1999. There are dozens of articles to this effect, for example, one from Naomi Klein which concludes:

“What emerged on the streets of Seattle and Washington was an activist model that mirrors the organic, decentralized, interlinked pathways of the Internet—the Internet come to life.” (11)

Really? People have been successfully co-ordinating decentralized, anti-totalitarian uprisings and revolutions for as long as anyone can remember — the peasants revolt, the English and French revolutions, the Luddite movement, the Indian independence movement, Paris and Prague 1968, and the 1993 anti road protests are some that come to mind — these all managed just as well as the Seattle protesters relying upon the ultimate form of decentralized communication, word of mouth. The insurgents of Seattle used the internet simply because that was becoming the dominant means of communication. If anything, the level of decentralized, co-ordinated direct action has declined in the UK since the internet became widespread in about 2000 — suggesting that dissidents may be content with virtual protest — while the Russians seem to be lurching back towards totalitarianism.

Transhumanists are keen to accentuate the “democratic”, decentralized aspects of the cyberworld partly because the traditional critique of posthumanism has always emphasized the danger that a scientific elite will take control. CS Lewis, in The Abolition of Man, predicts that “at the moment, then, of Man’s victory over Nature, we find the whole human race subjected to some individual men” whom he calls “the Conditioners”. (12) Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is much the same. The mid 20th century fear that technology would hand power over to an elite owes much to the Nazis interest in eugenics.
Similarly, in order to counter critics like Jaron Lanier, who warn that the new technologies will create a wealthy elite, transhumanists point to the rapidly falling price of lap-tops and mobile phones which “quickly become so inexpensive as to become almost free”. (13) Whether state-of-the-art genetic modifications and brain or body enhancements will also become “almost free” is less certain. The logic of capitalism leads one to expect that there will always be new and expensive forms of enhancement at the frontier of technology which will only be affordable to the very rich, and which, once acquired, will help to secure and increase their owner’s superiority and wealth.

But the main reason that transhumanists like to emphasize decentralization is because they are libertarian cornucopians who consider that new technologies will flourish best under a decentralized form of capitalism. They are wary of authority because it might enforce relinquishment of certain technologies. Kurzweil again:

“The only conceivable way that the accelerating pace of advancement on all of these fronts could be stopped would be through a worldwide totalitarian system that relinquishes the very idea of progress.” (14)

Most transhumanists therefore tend towards an unregulated, competitive environment in which the battle for the survival of the fittest technology is at its most intense — Darwin Amongst the Machines, as a book title puts it. (15) It doesn’t matter who wins because transhumanists are, by definition, always on the side of the winner.

Many green activists and left wing anarchists view the internet, open source software and the “creative commons” as inherently radical forms of organization (even though bodies such as the US National Nuclear Security Agency, IBM and Mitsubishi robotics use the open source operating system Linux). Poor fools: as far as the architects of our future are concerned the medium is the message. Artificial intelligence is its own propaganda, which is why it is spreading like a virus through schools, and why technophiles plan to distribute laptops to kids in the Third World who haven’t even got access to clean water. The uptake of increasingly powerful technology, however dissident or luddite the views it may happen to be propagating, serves to further the technological — and ultimately transhumanist — project.

The choices that lie ahead, if we allow the GNR technologies to multiply and evolve, therefore appear to be not that different from those described by Ted Kaczynski in the passage cited in the first part of this paper. Either transhuman progress will be stewarded by a governing elite of “bioethicists” and scientists who will have at their disposal tools for social control beyond the dreams of Hitler or Stalin. Or it will evolve within a decentralized competitive knowledge economy, in which case an elite or superior race may emerge whose power is derived from the accumulation of technological capital. Neither option is appealing whilst the only apparent alternative — some form of decisive relinquishment — will be difficult to achieve.

The Contradictions of Obsolescence

“The forces of change are irresistible” says the robot manu-facturer Rodney Brooks. “Resistance is futile.” At best, trans-humanists graciously allow that a few stubborn non-enhanced humans — MOSHes Kurzweil calls them, standing for Mostly Original Substrate Humans — may survive in primitive squalor much as dispossessed indigenous tribes are today permitted to stay on reservations.

Unfortunately the pursuit of technological progress for its own sake does have an inherent advantage over all other ideologies. Throughout history, cultures which opt to evolve at a rate more in tune with their biological surroundings, have been conquered, colonized and absorbed by the technological prowess of aggressive empires. Peasants who see no reason to alter their way of life are cast as backward and ignorant, are squeezed off their land by economic forces, or superseded by their more go ahead offspring.

There is a quotation from Max Planck, founder of quantum physics, which technophiles like to repeat:

“An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents. It rarely happens that Saul becomes Paul. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out and the growing generation is familiarized with the idea from the beginning.” (16)

The statement rings true when we look at the ease with which modern children and teenagers adapt to the rapid advance of cybertechnology and virtual reality. In the 1960s and 1970s when cultural norms propagated by people born before the invention of horseless carriages were still partly intact, it was the young who were rebels against the moral authority and presumed wisdom of the old. Now that this worn out cultural fabric has been superseded by an ideology of instant consumption and techno-faddism, it is the young who are conformists, and the old, misfits.

At first sight this shift in status between young and old does not appear to bode well for advocates of technological stasis or a slow pace of evolution. But it is possible to detect in it contradictions that will emerge more strongly if the advance of technology continues to accelerate at even a fraction of the exponential rate that the transhumanists predict.

As the rate of technological change speeds up so does the rate of obsolescence; and as things become obsolete more quickly so too will Planck’s “growing generations familiarized with the idea from the beginning.” In short, youth will become misfits more quickly, and the number of “old” misfits will increasingly outnumber the youngsters still surfing the technological wave — all the more so since the transhumanists are determined that everybody should live longer. The rate of technological change has long outpaced our rate of biological evolution; but now it outpaces our individual lifespans.
The obsolescence problem becomes still more embarrassing for the technophiles if genetic enhancement of offspring is introduced. This is Bill McKibben:

“The first child whose genes come at least in part from some corporate lab, the first child who has been ‘enhanced’ from what came before — that’s the first child who will glance over his shoulder and see a gap between himself and human history. But here’s the really awful part. He won’t be able to imagine himself connected with those who come after him, because, of course by then there will be better upgrades. They’ll be Windows 2050 to his Atari. He’ll be marooned forever on his own small island.” (17)

As McKibben points out elsewhere, even two siblings five years apart might find their genes engineered to different standards.

For this reason the biotech industry (if it has any tactical sense) may decide to steer clear of reprogenetic technologies, and efforts are more likely to be concentrated into other technologies which can be retrofitted in mid-life: therapeutic cloning of body parts, advanced prosthetics, nano technologies, robotics, surveillance technologies and virtual realities. The accent will be on “lifelong learning” at an ever increasing intensity. But Luddites can take heart that the older people are, the more resistant they become to learning new tricks, and the more they value culture over innovation. The songs we remember and love best are the ones we learnt in our youth, so modernizers will have a hard time getting everyone to sing to the same hymnsheet.

Towards a Slow Evolution Manifesto

The problem of accelerating obsolescence may cause the technofixers some systemic problems but these are unlikely to stem the tide of technical advance. Nor is there much sign that government bodies are concerned about the long term prospects There are no bodies for assessing or regulating either the short or the long term social effects of the nanotechnology, robotics and artificial intelligence industries.

Decisions about genetic engineering of humans are regarded as more sensitive and in the UK are regulated by the UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). But it is hard to find much that they have definitively banned, other than the direct cloning of human individuals. This is a hollow gesture since even transhumanists such as Kurzweil are happy to see it banned. Currently, most attempts to clone mammals fail and about 30 per cent of clones born alive suffer from a debilitating condition, so most geneticists are worried that rogue scientists like Rael, or Severino Antinori will attempt to produce a cloned human, cock it up and give cloning a bad name. (18)

Aside from reproductive cloning, wherever the HFEA, have had an opportunity to draw a clear line — for instance prohibiting chimeras or the cloning of human embryos — they have declined to draw it. Current guidelines prohibit modification of the human germline to produce designer babies, but allow designers to screen out embryos with certain genes, and to modify embryos up to 14 days old “for research purposes” — ie to let scientists keep working on the project.

Dave King of Human Genetics Alert comments:

“Regulatory bodies such as the HFEA, even if not actually dominated by scientists and doctors with financial incentives in the technologies they oversee, are nonetheless controlled by a scientific discourse that makes “progress” and medical benefits the ruling ethical consideration and employs a bioethics that is incapable of drawing clear ethical lines. They make decisions on a case-by-case basis, without considering the social effects of the technologies’ long-term trajectories. They appear to conduct serious deliberations on each step, yet they end up justifying the slide down the slippery slope because they can never say ‘no’.” (19)

We will only stop humanity marching blindly down the slippery slope that leads toward transhumanism by creating a movement that focuses clearly on the long term dangers, analyses them within their political, economic and ideological context, and kicks up a fuss.

Here are four pointers for action:

• We need to overhaul our vocabulary. We should reclaim the word Luddite, which is used as a term of abuse even by people who have Luddite tendencies, as in “I’m no Luddite but . . .” Ditching the term is not an option, as our enemies will continue to use it, so it should be carried with pride. However it needs to be supplemented with a more up-to-date and explicit vocabulary that conveys aims succinctly. For example the term “Slow Evolution” does not imply stasis or backwardness, it chimes with the Slow Food /Fast Food axis, and it implies harmony with the rest of the natural world. “Slow evolution is co-evolution” is the slogan that comes to mind.

• We need to develop a lucid ideological stance, which will explain (a) how the transhuman and technophile agenda is currently linked to neo-liberalism (and could be adopted by neo-fascists); (b) that human wellbeing and happiness have only tenuous links with technological advance; (c) that human society should aspire to co-evolve with our natural world rather than dominate it and (d) how Slow Evolution meshes with other environmental imperatives.

• We should welcome and explore (rather than shun or hide) the contradictions inherent in a Luddite stance. Trans-humanists argue that unbridled technological advance is the natural extension of the process of evolution. Since everything is Nature, it would be foolish to deny this. Rather the slow evolutionist embraces the paradox inherent in the human condition; that we need to restrain human nature to retain human nature. “Nature is what we are put on this earth to rise above” says Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen. Yet we can only rise above Nature by declining to rise above her, by abstaining from the pursuit of evolutionary hegemony to its inevitable conclusion; for, to repeat the words of C S Lewis, “Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man”. (20)

• We need to use more confrontational tactics. We know from experience that the government pays little attention to public opinion and steam-rollers consultation processes, while the spectre of social disruption makes them react. Non-violent direct action and riot laced with humour are tactics that we know work well. Crop-pulling has been highly effective, so do we now need some test-tube-trashing? Targeting experiments with a high “yuk factor” and low medical benefit, would put the wind up the mad scientists, and would give mainstream bioethicists with luddite sympathies more bite. But we should steer clear of the violent methods used by the Unabomber, and some elements of the animal rights movement. They are morally repulsive to most people, hence divisive, and whatever tactical success Kaczynski may have achieved by alerting the public to the threats from technology is unlikely to be replicated.

1. Denis T Avery, Leading a 21st Century Global Triumph for the Environment, UC Berkeley Commencement Address, 21 May 2000,
2. P Rossett, letter to The Nation, 16 July 2001; cited at
3. Tewolde Behran Gebre Egzhiaber, “Using the South to Promote Genetic Engineering in Europe —Once Again!”, in Ellen Hickey and Anurhada Mittal, Voices from the South: The Third World Debunks Corporate Myths on Genetically Engineered Crops, Food First and Pesticide Action Network,
4. Jeff Zeleny, “House Votes to Expand Stem Cell Research, Jeff Zeleny”, NY Times, 8 June 2007.
5. Cited in Bill McKibben, Enough: Genetic Engineering and the End of Human Nature, Bloomsbury, 2003, p126.
6. Olympics Ban for ‘Blade Runner’ Pistorius, Agence France Presse, 14 Jan, 2008,; For a legal discussion of sport and transhumanism, see G Wolbring, “Oscar Pistorius and the future nature of Olympic, Paralympic and other sports”, (2008) 5:1 SCRIPTed 139:
7. John Hockenberry, “The Next Brainiacs”, Wired, Aug 2001,
8. Natasha Vita-More cited in Erik Baard, “Inside the Movement for Posthuman Rights”, The Village Voice, July 30 – August 5, 2003.”
9. Peter Singer, “Shopping at the Genetic Supermarket”, in S Song, Y Koo & D Macer (eds.), Asian Bioethics in the 21st Century, Tsukuba, 2003, pp143-156.
10. Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near, Viking, 2005, p. 406
11. Naomi Klein, Were the DC and Seattle Protests Unfocused? Naomi Klein website, 10 July,, 2001
12. C S Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 1944.
13. Kurzweil, op cit, p. 469.
14. Ibid, p. 417.
15. George B Dyson, Darwin Amongst the Machines, Helix Books, 1997.
16. Max Planck, The Philosophy of Physics, 1936.
17. McKibben, op cit 5.
18. Kurzweil, op cit p. 221.
19. David King, “Important Changes in UK Law on Reproductive and Genetic Technologies”, Genetic Crossroads, January 26th, 2007.
20. Op cit 12; and for further investigation of this theme, see part 1 of this article in issue 5 of The Land 5, p16.