December 29, 2004

Conversation with Dale Carrico on denaturalization

I've been corresponding with Betterhumans columnist and Amor Mundi blogger Dale Carrico about his latest set of articles, The Trouble with Transhumanism Parts I and II.

Dale's been engaging the fine people at WorldChanging about enviro related issues, particularly the issue of humanity's tenancy to denaturalize itself and its environment. In Part II of his BH column, Carrico made the very astute observation that both bioconservative and tech-progressive sensibilities, positions and politics have arisen and exert their force uniquely in consequence of what he describes as the ongoing denaturalization of human life in this historical moment. "This denaturalization is a broad social and cultural tendency," writes Carrico, "roughly analogous to and even structurally related to other broad tendencies such as, say, secularization and industrialization." He continues:
It consists essentially of two trends: First, it names a growing suspicion (one that can provoke either fear or hopefulness, sometimes in hyperbolic forms) of the normative and ideological force of claims made in the name of "nature" and especially "human nature," inspired by a recognition of the destabilizing impact of technological developments on given capacities and social norms. Second, it consists of an awareness of the extent to which the terms and pace of technological development, and the distribution of its costs, risks and benefits, is emerging ever more conspicuously as the primary space of social struggle around the globe.

It is a truism that the technical means to eliminate poverty and illiteracy for every human being on Earth have existed since the 18th century, but that social forms and political will have consistently frustrated these ends. The focus for most tech-progressives remains to use emerging technologies to transform the administration of social needs, to provide shelter, nutrition, health care and education for all, as well as to remedy the damaging and destabilizing impact of technology itself on complex, imperfectly understood environmental and social orders on which we depend for survival. To these ends, a deepening and widening of democratic participation in development and accountability of governance through emerging networked information and communication technologies is also crucial. Beyond this, many tech-progressives also champion the idea of morphological freedom, or consensual practices of genetic, prosthetic and cognitive modification considered as personal practices of self-creation rather than as the technological imposition of social conformity figured questionably as "health."
A couple of days ago I wrote to Dale to congratulate him on his articles. Here's the conversation that ensued:

Dale, what an excellent set of articles! Your second one was particularly strong. Your notion that denaturalization follows along such trends as secularization and industrialization is a zinger.
I agree with you that the discussion of "denaturalization" is especially promising, but maybe you can help me think through some of the quandaries of the term.

I have heard some criticisms among environmentalists I respect about this “anti-nature” aspect of my argument. I can see the point of arguments that would say that technology is the *form* human "nature" takes, and I can see the point of arguments that say we depend for our survival on complex systems we imperfectly understand (which seems to be what some people mean by "nature") even if we impact them with our own activity and this must make us especially careful.

But I can't for the life of me figure out a way to weave these insights into the point I was making myself about technological destabilization as a risky but promisingly emancipatory force, and "nature" as a word people mostly use just to defend customs that have outlived their usefulness. I want to say culture trumps nature, and human dignity must come from critical freedom not uncritical customs from now on -- but I don't want to deny there is some sense in these objections.
Another way of describing denaturalization is the steady encroachment of intelligent interventions in what are normally autonomic processes; consequently, we must be wary of the motives that underlie these interventions. But we must also be wary of those arguments that take a non-interventionist approach, which can sometimes be an indifferent hands-off approach for merely romantic reasons, or sentiments that arise from the fear that we might make the situation worse (and that certain systems are optimized before intelligence intervenes -- a hard argument to sell).

Once thing I don't buy, however, is that the complexity found in natural systems are ineffable and/or intractable. Because complexity is often merely a data or mapping problem, it's just a matter of time and diligence.

Another angle would be to include practical applications of personhood ethics in consideration of how it applies to utilitarianism. A trick will be to show a kind of cost/benefit analysis of non-intervention versus intervention in terms of its impact on all living, emotional, and experiential creatures. To do so, the value of say, maintaining a certain biological function for aesthetic (romantic) reasons, would have to be qualitatively determined, and then set against what we value through intervening in the process.

Non-interventionists need to be careful, however, in that they risk applying Darwinianism to their ethical worldview, which is not IMO tied into our collective set of values as thinking and compassionate creatures; rather, we need to be Lamarckian as we apply non-anthropocentric personhood values in our dealings with living creatures and systems.
I agree with all of this! When I tell people culture should trump nature I've been trying to say in a sloppy too-intuitive way what you are saying here, I think. It's funny, once "culture" is set in motion "hands-off" is always a *kind* of intervention itself, there is no way to not "intervene," the process of intervention has already begun. The question becomes where and how one intervenes, and non-intervention is always non-intervention in processes stamped by ongoing interventions. That's why I agree with you that the very notion of non-intervention is always a romantic mystification, pure ideology.

This stuff speaks to the Precautionary Principle discussion too (another topic on which I seem to swim against the tide) -- though for me the key thing with the Principle is not whether it generally recommends stagnation or development but *who* gets to participate in the decision-making about what forms intervention takes.

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