The evolutionary argument against cognitive enhancement research is weak

post by JanBrauner · 2019-10-16T20:46:09.253Z · score: 18 (8 votes) · EA · GW · 7 comments

This is a link post for https://www.nickbostrom.com/evolution.pdf

When discussing cognitive enhancement research as a potential EA cause area, a frequent counter-argument goes along the following lines:

"Higher cognitive performance is better. Thus, evolution already optimised for cognitive performance. Thus, it's unlikely that simple changes to brain chemistry could improve cognitive performance. Thus, cognitive enhancement research (and particularly research into nootropics) has low tractability."

I find the argument fairly weak for a number of reasons. Iodine supplementation seems to have worked great, and so does drinking coffee. But there are also some theoretical arguments. I was planning to write a short post but then I realised that Nick Bostrom and Anders Sandberg have already written about this.

They define three categories for how we might hope to improve on evolution's work:

  1. Changed tradeoffs: Evolution ‘‘designed’’ the system for operation in one type of environment, but now we wish to deploy it in a very different type of environment.
  1. Value discordance: There is a discrepancy between the standards by which evolution measured the quality of her work, and the standards that we wish to apply.
  1. Evolutionary restrictions. We have access to various tools, materials, and techniques that were unavailable to evolution.

7 comments

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comment by Milan_Griffes · 2019-10-16T22:00:10.115Z · score: 7 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

See also Gwern on this: https://www.gwern.net/Drug-heuristics (a)

comment by Matthew_Barnett · 2019-10-19T22:38:21.102Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)
I find the argument fairly weak for a number of reasons. Iodine supplementation seems to have worked great

Iodine supplementation isn't enhancement; it's more like fixing a broken component. If a machine has a broken part, fixing it might dramatically raise the performance of the machine, but that doesn't tell you how easy it would be to improve a machine with no broken parts.

comment by JanBrauner · 2019-10-24T23:14:18.027Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

That mostly seems to be semantics to me. There could be other things that we are currently "deficient" in and we could figure that out by doing cognitive enhancement research.

As far as I know, the term "cognitive enhancement" is often used in the sense that I used it here, e.g. relating to exercise (we are currently deficient in exercise compared to our ancestors), taking melatonin (we are deficient in melatonin compared to our ancestors), and so on...

comment by RomeoStevens · 2019-10-16T23:02:33.354Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Downside maladaptation to an unusual environment (modernity) seems common.

comment by ishi · 2019-10-18T17:40:15.971Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

My semi-educated guess is the arguments for either case are both weak at present. Its unknown. I'd say same for 'designer babies' and other reproductive technologies (which i hear advertized on the radio all the time--eg infertility clinics--mostly used by affluent people , and often womyn over age 40. In India they have 'baby farms'--eg people in USA hire some poor womyn in India to be a surrogate mother , so they don't have to deal with pregnancy --whcih they view as a chore--- because they want to keep their career but want a baby).

comment by EgilElenius · 2019-10-18T04:39:19.514Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Quick thought: as the human mind evolved for a hunter-gathererer society, and since then humanity has had loads of different societies, where different ways of thinking are favourable, perhaps some sort of cognitive enhancement making it easier for the human mind to see in what situation it is and quickly readjust thereafter could increase its cognitive performance.

comment by SoerenMind · 2019-10-17T10:19:05.419Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hmmm isn't the argument still pretty broadly applicable and useful despite the exceptions?