Film Friday: Waking Life

Waking Life: Healy

Wiley visits Eamonn Healy, Chemistry professor at Austin. Healy discusses human evolution and the values that are associated with it: parasitism, dominance, morality, war, predation. In this scheme “the individual is at the whim of the collective.” He then states that we are beginning a new kind of evolution, which involves bio-technology (artificial intelligence, neuro-biology), which will occur much more rapidly, and involve a new set of values: truth, loyalty, justice, freedom. Here the individual becomes more valuable in its own right. Healy seems to be somewhat optimistic about futuristic human-robot life forms. Is there some grounds for his optimism?

While I think there are definitely grounds to his “optimism” (more on this to come) I think this “new kind of evolution” is actually relating to natural selection by adaptation within a single generation. It’s easy to confuse the two concepts; evolution is adaptation over time. Evolution is the big picture, whereas adaptation is the little steps, stages and modifications that occur in every generation. Evolution doesn’t happen in the “when my dog becomes a cat” sort of way. I liken this relationship of biotechnology and humans to the humans using tools to get them through their everyday lives. Take the Vampire Bat, for example, we don’t think of bats as higher order thinkers or on the same level as humans, however they too express these same values of truth, loyalty and justice. As a summary, for those who are unfamiliar with the Vampire Bat model, they function as a semi-social community. Vampire bats must have a blood meal every few nights to survive.

Bat A: Went out and got a blood meal and came back to the colony.
Bat B: Has not had a blood meal in 2 days, and nuzzles Bat A to get a little bit of their blood meal.
Bat A: Allows this sharing for the first night. Goes out and gets a blood meal the following night.
Bat B: Did not go hunt, asks Bat A for a blood meal again. Bat A allows this a second night in a row. The next night Bat A cannot find a source for a blood meal and returns to the colony to find Bat B full from a night of hunting.
Bat A: Hungry from sharing half of its meals with Bat B for two nights in a row, Bat A nuzzles Bat B to get a little bit of their blood meal.
Bat B: Refuses to share.

The next time that Bat A is nuzzled by Bat B for a blood meal Bat A refuses to share, thus absolving their understanding of sharing.

This is basic, but you can see how morality is evolving in species other than humans, so this is not anything new or novel. While we may rely on modern medicine, biotechnology, or even IVF to proliferate the species, if future generations no longer have access to those technologies (or they go out of vogue or are determined “immoral” by politicians), then we cannot consider this a step in any positive evolutionary direction. It does not matter if the most intelligent, most affluent, most gadget-dependent humans are more successful in a single generation if they cannot pass those traits to future generations.

I don’t think I have a strong enough science background to discuss this intelligently, but I’m wondering if what Healy is referring to is something along the lines of being able to modify humans in such a way that these generational adaptations are actually passed on to offspring. For example, if we are able to completely crack the DNA code, we could alter that in ways that these changes are passed on.

I think that’s a really simplistic way to look at how the “DNA code” works… it’s not as simple as hacking into a computer. There have been great strides made in the genetic counseling and gene therapy field using stem cells, however any and all progress in those fields is stifled by politics and so-called “morality”. I’m not seeing this type of progress being made in this country, if that’s what you mean.

I suppose I am more optimistic. I feel like our country in particular goes through this with every new development. There is a big moral push back to new developments and lots of angry grumbling, but then we come to grips with it and move on.

Just like equal access to birth control and family planning. Just like that. And educational reform. And corporal punishment in the schools. We never go back to where we once were (tongue planted firmly in my cheek).

Even is Mississippi, arguably the most conservative state in the country, the birth control reforms were soundly defeated this year. All of these issues you mention are still important, but they are areas we have made improvements in – and although the progress is not as fast as many of us would like, I do believe the progress is happening.

You, like Healy, are optimistic.

For me, the interesting part of this “new” evolution is not so much that it involves bio-technology, but rather that it falls under the control of humans. Evolution has always existed as something that sort of just happens – random adaptations that survive because they work better. With bio-technology, these would no longer be random.

We’ve briefly touched on the idea of socially engineering evolution in this blog (i.e., Idiocracy), but this is beyond even that. Many religious believers balk at this idea and make claims that we should not play God by interfering with nature and natural processes. I tend to find this argument ridiculous though – any time we go get our hair cut or clip our fingernails we are interfering with natural processes.

Or we get antibiotics from a doctor.

Still, I do have lingering ethical concerns. Can we as a human species trust ourselves with this power if we are able to develop it? As with any advance in technology, there are both good and bad ways that it can be used. What can we do to make it most likely that we will use this in good ways?

Waking Life is one of the most philosophically rich films I’ve ever seen, and I’ve shown it in classes I’ve taught many times. Check out this full list of interesting discussion questions here. 

Waking Life

Next Week’s Selection: Groundhog’s Day

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