The future of mankind ?
A rodent wirehead
"The mind is its
own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heaven"
Satan, in Milton's Paradise Lost
THE WIRED SOCIETY
Within a few centuries, it will be
technically if not
ideologically feasible to abolish suffering of any kind. If we wish
to do so, then genetic engineering and nanotechnology can potentially
be used to banish unpleasant modes of consciousness from the
living world. In its place,
gradients of life-long genetically pre-programmed well-being could animate
us instead. Millennia hence, the world's last aversive experience may even
be a precisely dateable event: perhaps a minor pain in an obscure marine
Far-fetched? Right now, indeed, the
abolitionist option sounds fanciful.
The task of redesigning our legacy-wetware seems daunting to most of us.
Rewriting the vertebrate genome, and re-engineering the global ecosystem,
certainly pose immense scientific challenges.
The ideological obstacles to a happy world, however,
are vaster still. For we've learned how to rationalise the need for
mental pain - even though it
blights innumerable lives, and even though its very existence will soon
* * *
Today, any scientific blueprint for getting rid of suffering
is likely to be reduced to one of two negative stereotypes. Both are
disturbing, pervasive, and profoundly ill-conceived. Together, they
impoverish our notion of what a Post-Darwinian
regime of life-long happiness might be like; and delay its prospect.
- The first stereotype of
world centres on soma
- Aldous Huxley's
brilliantly-conceived but spurious evocation of the "ideal pleasure-drug":
"...Two thousand pharmacologists and bio-chemists were
subsidized. Six years later it was being produced commercially. The
perfect drug. Euphoric, narcotic, pleasantly hallucinant. All the
advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects. Take a
holiday from reality whenever you like, and come back without so much as
a headache or a mythology. Stability was practically assured..."
Soma is taken by the brainwashed and manipulated dupes of the ruling
genetic caste in Brave New
World. A cross between a hangoverless tranquilliser and a
non-addictive opiate, soma allows Huxley's utopians to enjoy (episodes of)
imbecilic, drug-induced bliss to offset their empty consumerist lives. In
BNW, soma is a highly pleasureable cure-all; but it underwrites a
static, philistine, loveless society where intellectual progress of any
kind has been abolished. Surely we don't want to end up as brave new
- The second stereotype of life-long bliss strikes us as even more
degrading. It features an intra-cranially self-stimulating
rat. The little
creature's enraptured frenzy of lever-pressing is eventually followed by
death from inanition, self-neglect and immunological collapse. Not just
rats, but also fish, chickens, rabbits, guinea pigs, cats, dogs, monkeys
and humans have all been found to exhibit electrical self-stimulatory
behaviour when given the opportunity to do so. The pleasure-pain axis is
an invariant feature of the vertebrate line - and beyond.
In the case of
our reward-pathways are somewhat more anatomically diffuse than the average
rodent. At least with present-day electrode-placement techniques,
intra-cranial self-stimulation as practised by laboratory humans doesn't
lead to uncontrolled hedonistic
excess and death. Only depressed or deeply malaise-ridden human subjects
compulsively self-stimulate when wired. Ill-defined "ethical
constraints", however, are commonly held to forbid its use rather than to
mandate its widespread adoption and refinement - even by avowed
instead of using fellow humans, experimenters use rats. Pleasure-crazed
rodents have become the symbolic expression of
wirehead hedonism - and
of all the pitfalls that "unnatural" pleasure entails.
Rats, of course, have a very poor image in our culture. Our
mammalian cousins are still widely perceived as "vermin". Thus the sight of
a blissed-out and manically self-stimulating rat does not inspire vicarious
happiness in the rest of us. On the contrary, if achieving invincible
well-being entails launching a program of world-wide wireheading - or its
pharmacological and/or genetic counterparts - then most of us will recoil in
Olds' rat, and the image of electronically-triggered bliss, embody a
morally catastrophic misconception of the spectrum of options for
the aeons ahead. This is because the varieties of genetically-coded
well-being on offer to our
successors needn't be squalid or self-centred. Nor need they be insipid,
empty and amoral a la Brave New World. Our modes of well-being can be
cerebral and potently
In fact, instead of being
states of consciousness can be transformed into the everyday norm of mental
health. When it's precision-engineered, hedonic enrichment needn't lead to
orgasmic frenzy. Nor need it entail getting stuck in a wirehead rut.
This is because in a naturalistic setting, even the crudest
dopaminergic drugs tend to
increase exploratory behaviour, will-power and the range of stimuli
an organism finds rewarding. Dopaminergics aren't just potential euphoriants:
they also enhance "incentive-motivation". Thus our future is likely to be
more diverse, not less.
Perhaps more surprisingly, controlled euphoria needn't be
inherently "selfish" - i.e. hedonistic in the baser, egoistic sense. Non-neurotoxic
and sustainable analogues of
empathogen hug-drugs like MDMA
("Ecstasy") - which releases a
lot of extra serotonin and some extra dopamine - may potentially induce
extraordinary serenity, empathy and love for others. An arsenal of cognitive
enhancers will make us
smarter too: to be blissful isn't the same a being "blissed-out".
Ultimately, however, using drugs or electrodes for
psychological superhealth is
no better than taking medicines to promote physical superhealth. They can
serve only as dirty and inelegant stopgaps. In an
ideal world, our
emotional, intellectual and physical well-being will be genetically
predestined. It will be a design-feature of any Post-Darwinian mind. Indeed
some futurists predict we will one day live in a
paradise where suffering is
physiologically inconceivable; a world where we can no more imagine what it
is like to suffer than we can presently imagine what it is like to be a bat.
Today, of course, it is sublime
bliss which is
effectively inconceivable to most of us.
The story of the biochemical roots of paradise is
illuminating, but not very edifying. In the 1950s,
James Olds and his
colleagues invented a procedure known as intracranial self-stimulation. By
implanting a permanent thin wire-electrode in a rat's brain, the captive
rodent was given the ability to
small electric shock. The current used is typically less than 0.0005
amperes. The pulse lasts for less than a second: the rodent wirehead must
press the lever again to get another hit. Different placements of the
electrode elicit different intensities of response. Rates of up to 10,000
bar-presses an hour may be recorded - but only for pulses delivered to the
most rewarding brain-areas. An animal will self-stimulate for a whole day
and night without rest, and cross a powerfully electrified grid, to gain
access to the lever when its reward-centres are wired up.
Olds mapped the whole brain. Stimulation of some
areas - the periaqueductal grey matter, for instance - proved aversive: an
animal will work hard to avoid it. "Aversive" is probably a euphemism:
electrical pulses to certain neural pathways may be terrifying or
excruciating. Our victims are being
Happily, more regions in the brain are rewarding
than unpleasant. Yet electrical stimulation of most areas, including the
great bulk of the neocortex, is motivationally neutral.
One region in particular does seem especially
rewarding: the medial forebrain bundle. The key neurons in this bundle
originate in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) of the basal ganglia. VTA
neurons manufacture the catecholamine neurotransmitter
dopamine. Dopamine is
transported down the length of the neuron, packaged in synaptic vesicles,
and released into the synapse. Crucially, VTA neuronal pathways project to
the nucleus accumbens.
VTA dopaminergic neurons are under continuous inhibition by the gamma-aminobutyric
acid (GABA) system.
In recent years, a convergence of
and electrical stimulation experiments has led many researchers to endorse
some version of the "final common pathway" hypothesis of
There are anomalies and
complications which the
final-common-pathway hypothesis still has to account for. Any story which
omits the role and complex interplay of, say, "the love hormone",
phenylethylamine; the multiple receptor sub-types of
noradrenaline and the
and most crucially of all, the intra-cellular post-synaptic cascade within
individual neurons, is going to be simplistic. Yet there is accumulating
evidence that recreational euphoriants, clinically useful
mood-brighteners, and perhaps
all rewarding experiences critically depend on the mesolimbic dopamine
The dopamine neurotransmitter is not itself the
brain's magic pleasure-chemical.
Only the intra-cellular cascades triggered by neurotransmitter binding to
the post-synaptic receptor holds the elusive, tantalising key to everlasting
bliss; and they are not yet fully understood. But dopamine
for example, and other aversive drugs such as
kappa opioid agonists,
tend to inhibit activity,
or increase the threshold of stimulation, in the mesolimbic dopamine system.
Conversely, heroin and
cocaine, for instance, both
mimic the effects of direct electrical stimulation of the
Comparing the respective behavioural effects of
cocaine is instructive. If rats
or monkeys are hooked up to an intravenous source of heroin (or other potent
mu opioid agonist such
as fentanyl), the
animals will happily self-administer the drug indefinitely; but they still
find time to sleep and eat. If rats or monkeys can self-administer cocaine
indefinitely, however, they will do virtually nothing else. They continue to
push a drug-delivery lever for as long as they are physically capable of
doing so. Within weeks, if not days, they will lose a substantial portion of
their body weight - up to 40%. Within a month, they will be dead.
Humans don't have this problem. So what keeps our
mesolimbic dopamine system so indolent? Why does a "hedonic treadmill" stop
us escaping from a genetically-predisposed "set-point"
of emotional ill-being? Why can't social engineering, politico-economic
reform or psychotherapy - as distinct from germ-line genetic re-writes -
make us durably happy?
Evolution provides some plausible answers. A
capacity to experience many different flavours of unhappiness - and
short-lived joys too - was adaptive in the ancestral environment. Thus at
least a partial explanation of endemic human misery lies in
selection-pressure and the state of the unreconstructed vertebrate genome.
Selfish DNA makes its throwaway survival-machines feel discontented a lot of
the time: a restless discontent is typically good for promoting its
"inclusive fitness", even if it's bad news for us. Nature simply doesn't
care; and God
has gone missing, presumed dead.
On the African savannah, naturally happy and
un-anxious creatures typically got outbred or eaten or both.
suggests that the far greater incidence of the internalised correlate of the
depression, reflects how low spirits were frequently more
group-living organisms than
manic self-assertion. Group living can be adaptive, but we've paid a
very high price for it.
Whatever the origins of malaise, today a web of
mechanisms in the CNS conspires to
keep well-being - and usually extreme ill-being - from persisting for very
Life-enriching emotional superhealth will depend
on subverting these mechanisms. The hedonic set-point around which our lives
fluctuate can be genetically switched to a far higher plateau of well-being.
At the most immediate level, firing in the
neurons of the ventral tegmental area is held in check mainly by gamma-aminobutyric
acid (GABA), the major
inhibitory neurotransmitter in the vertebrate central nervous system.
Opioids act to diminish the
braking action of GABA on the dopaminergic neurons of the VTA. In
consequence, VTA neurons release more dopamine in the nucleus accumbens. The
reuptake of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens is performed by the dopamine
transporter. The transporter is blocked by
cocaine. This induces
euphoria. [Why? We don't know. Science has no deep understanding of why
sentience - or
insentience for that matter -
exists at all.]
Amphetamines block the dopamine
transporter too; but they also act directly on the dopaminergic neurons and
promote its release.
The mesolimbic dopamine pathway passes from the
VTA to the nucleus accumbens and ascends to the frontal cortex. It
innervates the higher brain. This is because raw limbic highs and lows - in
the absence of represented objects, events or properties to be (dis)satisfied
about - would be genetically useless. To help self-replicating DNA
differentially leave more copies of itself, the textures of subjective
niceness and nastiness must infuse our representations of the world, and -
by our lights - the world
itself. Hedonic tone must be functionally coupled to motor-responses
initiated on the basis of the perceived significance of the stimulus to the
organism, and of the
anticipated consequences - adaptively nice or nasty - of running neural
simulations of alternative courses of action that the agent can perform.
Hence natural selection has engineered the "encephalisation of emotion". One
form this encephalisation takes is our revulsion at the prospect of turning
ourselves into wirehead rats - or soma-pacified dupes of a ruling elite.
Both scenarios somehow strike us as too inherently distasteful even
In any case, wouldn't we get bored of life-long
Apparently not. That's what's so revealing about
wireheading. Unlike food,
sex, the experience of pleasure
itself exhibits no tolerance, even though our particular objects of desire
certainly do. Thus we can eventually get bored of anything - with a single
exception. Stimulation of the pleasure-centres never palls. Fire them in the
right way, and boredom is neurologically impossible. Electrical stimulation
of the mesolimbic dopamine system is more intensely rewarding than eating,
love-making; and it never gets in the slightest a bit tedious. The
unlimited raw pleasure of wirehead bliss certainly inspires
monotony in the electrode-naive; but that's a different story altogether.
Yet are wireheading or
supersoma really the only
ways to ubiquitous ecstasy? Or does posing the very question reflect our
stunted conception of the immensely diverse family of
paradise-engineering options soon in prospect?
This isn't an exercise in idle philosophising. As
neuroscience advances, then not just boredom, but pain, terror, disgust,
jealousy, anxiety, depression, malaise and any form of unpleasantness are
destined to become truly optional. Our complicity in their
persistence, and ultimately our responsibility for
sustaining and creating
them in the living world, is destined to increase. The hardest obstacles to
a cruelty-free world - a world cured of any obligate suffering - will
be ideological, not technical. Yet whatever the exact time-scale of its
replacement, in evolutionary terms we are on the brink of a Post-Darwinian
THE POST-DARWINIAN TRANSITION
Really? In what sense of "Post-Darwinian"?
Natural selection has previously been "blind".
Complications aside, genetic mutations and meiotic shufflings are
quasi-random: Nature has no capacity for foresight or contingency-planning.
During the primordial Darwinian Era of life on earth,
selfishness in the technical
genetic sense has closely overlapped with selfishness in the popular sense:
they are easily confused, and indeed the first is unavoidable. But in the
new reproductive era - where (suites of) alleles will be societally
chosen and actively designed in anticipation of their likely
behavioural effects - the character of fitness-enhancing traits will be
For a start, the elimination of such evolutionary
relics as the ageing process will make any form of (post-)human reproduction
on earth - whether sexual or clonal - a relatively rare and momentous event.
It's likely that designer post-human babies will be meticulously
pre-planned. The notion that all reproductive decisions will be socially
regulated in a post-ageing world is
abhorrent to one's libertarian instincts; but if they weren't
regulated, then the earth would soon simply exceed its carrying capacity -
whether it is 15 billion or 150 billion. If reproduction on earth does cease
to be a personal affair and becomes a (democratically accountable?)
state-sanctioned choice, then a major shift in the character of typically
adaptive behavioural traits will inevitably occur. Taking a crude genes'
eye-view, a variant allele coding for, say, enhanced oxytocin expression, or
a sub-type of
serotonin receptor predisposing to unselfishness in the popular
sense, will actually carry a higher payoff in the technical selfish
sense - hugely increasing the likelihood that such alleles and their
customised successors will be differentially pre-selected in
preference to alleles promoting, say, anti-social behaviour.
Told like this, of course, the neurochemical story
is a simplistic parody. It barely even hints at the complex biological,
political issues at stake. Just who will take the decisions, and how?
What will be the role in shaping post-human value systems, not just of
exotic new technologies, but of alien forms of emotion whose metabolic
pathways and substrates haven't yet been disclosed to us? What kinds, if
any, of inorganic organisms or non-DNA-driven states of consciousness will
we want to design and implement? What will be the nature of the
transitional era - when our genetic mastery of emotional mind-making is
still seriously incomplete? How can we be sure that unknown unknowns won't
make things go wrong? True, Darwinian life may often be dreadful, but
couldn't botched paradise-engineering make it even worse? And even if
it couldn't, might not there be some metaphysical sense in which life in a
blissful biosphere could still be morally "wrong" - even if it strikes its
inhabitants as utterly right?
Unfortunately, we will only begin to glimpse the
implications of Post-Darwinism when paradise-engineering becomes a mature
scientific discipline and mainstream research tradition. Even so, as the
vertebrate genome is rewritten, the two senses of "selfish" will foreseeably
diverge spectacularly rather than being easily conflated. A tendency to
to other sentient beings did indeed enhance the inclusive fitness of our DNA
in the evolutionary past. In the new reproductive era, such traits are
potentially maladaptive. They may even disappear.
The possibility that we will become not just
exceedingly happier, but nicer, may sound
too good to be true.
Perhaps we'll just become happier egotists - in every sense. But if a
genetic predisposition to niceness becomes systematically fitness-enhancing,
then genetic selfishness - in the technical sense of "selfish" - ensures
that benevolence will not just triumph; it will also be evolutionarily
stable, in the games-theory sense, against "defectors".
Needless to say, subtleties and technical
complexities abound here. The very meaning of being "nice" to anyone or
anything, for instance, is changed if well-being becomes a generic property
of mental life. Either way, once suffering becomes biologically optional,
then only sustained and systematic
malice towards others could
allow us to perpetuate it for ever. And although today we may sometimes be
spiteful, there is simply no evidence that institutionalised malevolence
ethical perspective, the task of hastening the Post-Darwinian Transition
has a desperate moral urgency - brought home by studying just how
nasty "natural" pain
can be. Those who would
resist the demise of unpleasantness may be asked: is it really
permissible to compel others to suffer when any form of
distress becomes purely optional? Should the metabolic pathways of our
evolutionary past be forced on anyone who prefers an odyssey of
life-long happiness instead? If so, what means of coercion should be
employed, and by whom?
Or is paradise-engineering the only
morally serious option? And
much more fun.
The Orgasmic Brain
The Good Drug Guide
Utilitarianism On The Net
The Hedonistic Imperative
Critique of Brave New World
When Is It Best To Take Crack Cocaine?
Wireheads and Wireheading
in Science Fiction
Pleasure Evoked by
Electrical Stimulation of the Brain