An Evolved Consciousness Creating Conscious Evolution

Two Evolutionary Leaps That Changed It All

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, human biological evolution has led to the emergence of not only consciousness but also a co-existing yet semi-independent cultural evolution (through the unique evolution of the human brain).  This evolutionary leap has allowed us to produce increasingly powerful technologies which in turn have provided a means for circumventing many natural selection pressures that our physical bodies would otherwise be unable to handle.

One of these technologies has been the selective breeding of plants and animals, with this process often referred to as “artificial” selection, as opposed to “natural” selection since human beings have served as an artificial selection pressure (rather than the natural selection pressures of the environment in general).  In the case of our discovery of artificial selection, by choosing which plants and animals to cultivate and raise, we basically just catalyzed the selection process by providing a selection pressure based on the plant or animal traits that we’ve desired most.  By doing so, rather than the selection process taking thousands or even millions of years to produce what we have today (in terms of domesticated plants and animals), it only took a minute fraction of that time since it was mediated through a consciously guided or teleological process, unlike natural selection which operates on randomly differentiating traits leading to differential reproductive success (and thus new genomes and species) over time.

This second evolutionary leap (artificial selection that is) has ultimately paved the way for civilization, as it has increased the landscape of our diet and thus our available options for food, and the resultant agriculture has allowed us to increase our population density such that human collaboration, complex distribution of labor, and ultimately the means for creating new and increasingly complex technologies, have been made possible.  It is largely because of this new evolutionary leap that we’ve been able to reach the current pinnacle of human evolution, the newest and perhaps our last evolutionary leap, or what I’ve previously referred to as “engineered selection”.

With artificial selection, we’ve been able to create new species of plants and animals with very unique and unprecedented traits, however we’ve been limited by the rate of mutations or other genomic differentiating mechanisms that must arise in order to create any new and desirable traits. With engineered selection, we can simply select or engineer the genomic sequences required to produce the desired traits, effectively allowing us to circumvent any genomic differentiation rate limitations and also allowing us instant access to every genomic possibility.

Genetic Engineering Progress & Applications

After a few decades of genetic engineering research, we’ve gained a number of capabilities including but not limited to: producing recombinant DNA, producing transgenic organisms, utilizing in vivo trans-species protein production, and even creating the world’s first synthetic life form (by adding a completely synthetic or human-constructed bacterial genome to a cell containing no DNA).  The plethora of potential applications for genetic engineering (as well as those applications currently in use) has continued to grow as scientists and other creative thinkers are further discovering the power and scope of areas such as mimetics, micro-organism domestication, nano-biomaterials, and many other inter-related niches.

Domestication of Genetically Engineered Micro and Macro-organisms

People have been genetically modifying plants and animals for the same reasons they’ve been artificially selecting them — in order to produce species with more desirable traits. Plants and animals have been genetically engineered to withstand harsher climates, resist harmful herbicides or pesticides (or produce their own pesticides), produce more food or calories per acre (or more nutritious food when all else is equal), etc.  Plants and animals have also been genetically modified for the purposes of “pharming”, where substances that aren’t normally produced by the plant or animal (e.g. pharmacological substances, vaccines, etc.) are expressed, extracted, and then purified.

One of the most compelling applications of genetic engineering within agriculture involves solving the “omnivore’s dilemma”, that is, the prospect of growing unconscious livestock by genetically inhibiting the development of certain parts of the brain so that the animal doesn’t experience any pain or suffering.  There have also been advancements made with in vitro meat, that is, producing cultured meat cells so that no actual animal is needed at all other than some starting cells taken painlessly from live animals (which are then placed into a culture media to grow into larger quantities of meat), however it should be noted that this latter technique doesn’t actually require any genetic modification, although genetic modification may have merit in improving these techniques.  The most important point here is that these methods should decrease the financial and environmental costs of eating meat, and will likely help to solve the ethical issues regarding the inhumane treatment of animals within agriculture.

We’ve now entered a new niche regarding the domestication of species.  As of a few decades ago, we began domesticating micro-organisms. Micro-organisms have been modified and utilized to produce insulin for diabetics as well as other forms of medicine such as vaccines, human growth hormone, etc.  There have also been certain forms of bacteria genetically modified in order to turn cellulose and other plant material directly into hydrocarbon fuels.  This year (2014), E. coli bacteria have been genetically modified in order to turn glucose into pinene (a high energy hydrocarbon used as a rocket fuel).  In 2013, researchers at the University of California, Davis, genetically engineered cyanobacteria (a.k.a. blue-green algae) by adding particular DNA sequences to its genome which coded for specific enzymes such that it can use sunlight and the process of photosynthesis to turn CO2 into 2,3 butanediol (a chemical that can be used as a fuel, or to make paint, solvents, and plastics), thus producing another means of turning our over abundant carbon emissions back into fuel.

On a related note, there are also efforts underway to improve the efficiency of certain hydro-carbon eating bacteria such as A. borkumensis in order to clean up oil spills even more effectively.  Imagine one day having the ability to use genetically engineered bacteria to directly convert carbon emissions back into mass-produced fuel, and if the fuel spills during transport, also having the counterpart capability of cleaning it up most efficiently with another form of genetically engineered bacteria.  These capabilities are being further developed and are only the tip of the iceberg.

In theory, we should also be able to genetically engineer bacteria to decompose many other materials or waste products that ordinarily decompose extremely slowly. If any of these waste products are hazardous, bacteria could be genetically engineered to breakdown or transform the waste products into a safe and stable compound.  With these types of solutions we can make many new materials and have a method in line for their proper disposal (if needed).  Additionally, by utilizing some techniques mentioned in the next section, we can also start making more novel materials that decompose using non-genetically-engineered mechanisms.

It is likely that genetically modified bacteria will continue to provide us with many new types of mass-produced chemicals and products. For those processes that do not work effectively (if at all) in bacterial (i.e. prokaryotic) cells, then eukaryotic cells such as yeast, insect cells, and mammalian cells can often be used as a viable option. All of these genetically engineered domesticated micro-organisms will likely be an invaluable complement to the increasing number of genetically modified plants and animals that are already being produced.

Mimetics

In the case of mimetics, scientists are discovering new ways of creating novel materials using a bottom-up approach at the nano-scale by utilizing some of the self-assembly techniques that natural selection has near-perfected over millions of years.  For example, mollusks form sea shells with incredibly strong structural/mechanical properties by their DNA coding for the synthesis of specific proteins, and those proteins bonding the raw materials of calcium and carbonate into alternating layers until a fully formed shell is produced.  The pearls produced by clams are produced with similar techniques. We could potentially use the same DNA sequence in combination with a scaffold of our choosing such that a similar product is formed with unique geometries, or through genetic engineering techniques, we could modify the DNA sequence so that it performs the same self-assembly with completely different materials (e.g. silicon, platinum, titanium, polymers, etc.).

By combining the capabilities of scaffolding as well as the production of unique genomic sequences, one can further increase the number of possible nanomaterials or nanostructures, although I’m confident that most if not all scaffolding needs could eventually be accomplished by the DNA sequence alone (much like the production of bone, exoskeleton, and other types of structural tissues in animals).  The same principles can be applied by looking at how silk is produced by spiders, how the cochlear hair cells are produced in mammals, etc.  Many of these materials are stronger, lighter, and more defect-free than some of the best human products ever engineered.  By mimicking and modifying these DNA-induced self-assembly techniques, we can produce entirely new materials with unprecedented properties.

If we realize that even the largest plants and animals use these same nano-scale assembly processes to build themselves, it isn’t hard to imagine using these genetic engineering techniques to effectively grow complete macro-scale consumer products.  This may sound incredibly unrealistic with our current capabilities, but imagine one day being able to grow finished products such as clothing, hardware, tools, or even a house.  There are already people working on these capabilities to some degree (for example using 3D printed scaffolding or other scaffolding means and having plant or animal tissue grow around it to form an environmentally integrated bio-structure).  If this is indeed realizable, then perhaps we could find a genetic sequence to produce almost anything we want, even a functional computer or other device.  If nature can use DNA and natural selection to produce macro-scale organisms with brains capable of pattern recognition, consciousness, and computation (and eventually the learned capability of genetic engineering in the case of the human brain), then it seems entirely reasonable that we could eventually engineer DNA sequences to produce things with at least that much complexity, if not far higher complexity, and using a much larger selection of materials.

Other advantages from using such an approach include the enormous energy savings gained by adopting the naturally selected economically efficient process of self-assembly (including less changes in the forms of energy used, and thus less loss) and a reduction in specific product manufacturing infrastructure. That is, whereas we’ve typically made industrial scale machines individually tailored to produce specific components which are later assembled into a final product, by using DNA (and the proteins it codes for) to do the work for us, we will no longer require nearly as much manufacturing capital, for the genetic engineering capital needed to produce any genetic sequence is far more versatile.

Transcending the Human Species

Perhaps the most important application of genetic engineering will be the modification of our own species.  Many of the world’s problems are caused by sudden environmental changes (many of them anthropogenic), and if we can change ourselves and/or other species biologically in order to adapt to these unexpected and sudden environmental changes (or to help prevent them altogether), then the severity of those problems can be reduced or eliminated.  In a sense, we would be selecting our own as well as other species by providing the proper genes to begin with, rather than relying on extremely slow genomic differentiation mechanisms and the greater rates of suffering and loss of life that natural selection normally follows.

Genetic Enhancement of Existing Features

With power over the genome, we may one day be able to genetically increase our life expectancy, for example, by modifying the DNA polymerase-g enzyme in our mitochondria such that they make less errors (i.e. mutations) during DNA replication, by genetically altering telomeres in our nuclear DNA such that they can maintain their length and handle more mitotic divisions, or by finding ways to preserve nuclear DNA, etc. If we also determine which genes lead to certain diseases (as well as any genes that help to prevent them), genetic engineering may be the key to extending the length of our lives perhaps indefinitely.  It may also be the key to improving the quality of that extended life by replacing the techniques we currently use for health and wellness management (including pharmaceuticals) with perhaps the most efficacious form of preventative medicine imaginable.

If we can optimize our brain’s ability to perform neuronal regeneration, reconnection, rewiring, and/or re-weighting based on the genetic instructions that at least partially mediate these processes, this optimization should drastically improve our ability to learn by improving the synaptic encoding and consolidation processes involved in memory and by improving the combinatorial operations leading to higher conceptual complexity.  Thinking along these lines, by increasing the number of pattern recognition modules that develop in the neo-cortex, or by optimizing their configuration (perhaps by increasing the number of hierarchies), our general intelligence would increase as well and would be an excellent complement to an optimized memory.  It seems reasonable to assume that these types of cognitive changes will likely have dramatic effects on how we think and thus will likely affect our philosophical beliefs as well.  Religious beliefs are also likely to change as the psychological comforts provided by certain beliefs may no longer be as effective (if those comforts continue to exist at all), especially as our species continues to phase out non-naturalistic explanations and beliefs as a result of seeing the world from a more objective perspective.

If we are able to manipulate our genetic code in order to improve the mechanisms that underlie learning, then we should also be able to alter our innate abilities through genetic engineering. For example, what if infants could walk immediately after birth (much like a newborn calf)? What if infants had adequate motor skills to produce (at least some) spoken language much more quickly? Infants normally have language acquisition mechanisms which allow them to eventually learn language comprehension and productivity but this typically takes a lot of practice and requires their motor skills to catch up before they can utter a single word that they do in fact understand. Circumventing the learning requirement and the motor skill developmental lag (at least to some degree) would be a phenomenal evolutionary advancement, and this type of innate enhancement could apply to a large number of different physical skills and abilities.

Since DNA ultimately controls the types of sensory receptors we have, we should eventually be able to optimize these as well.  For example, photoreceptors could be modified such that we would be able to see new frequencies of electro-magnetic radiation (perhaps a more optimized range of frequencies if not a larger range altogether).  Mechano-receptors of all types could be modified, for example, to hear a different if not larger range of sound frequencies or to increase tactile sensitivity (i.e. touch).  Olfactory or gustatory receptors could also be modified in order to allow us to smell and taste previously undetectable chemicals.  Basically, all of our sensations could be genetically modified and, when combined with the aforementioned genetic modifications to the brain itself, this would allow us to have greater and more optimized dimensions of perception in our subjective experiences.

Genetic Enhancement of Novel Features

So far I’ve been discussing how we may be able to use genetic engineering to enhance features we already possess, but there’s no reason we can’t consider using the same techniques to add entirely new features to the human repertoire. For example, we could combine certain genes from other animals such that we can re-grow damaged limbs or organs, have gills to breathe underwater, have wings in order to fly, etc.  For that matter, we may even be able to combine certain genes from plants such that we can produce (at least some of) our own chemical energy from the sun, that is, create at least partially photosynthetic human beings.  It is certainly science fiction at the moment, but I wouldn’t discount the possibility of accomplishing this one day after considering all of the other hybrid and transgenic species we’ve created already, and after considering the possible precedent mentioned in the endosymbiotic theory (where an ancient organism may have “absorbed” another to produce energy for it, e.g. mitochondria and chloroplasts in eukaryotic cells).

Above and beyond these possibilities, we could also potentially create advanced cybernetic organisms.  What if we were able to integrate silicon-based electronic devices (or something more biologically compatible if needed) into our bodies such that the body grows or repairs some of these technologies using biological processes?  Perhaps if the body is given the proper diet (i.e. whatever materials are needed in the new technological “organ”) and has the proper genetic code such that the body can properly assimilate those materials to create entirely new “organs” with advanced technological features (e.g. wireless communication or wireless access to an internet database activated by particular thoughts or another physiological command cue), we may eventually be able to get rid of external interface hardware and peripherals altogether.  It is likely that electronic devices will first become integrated into our bodies through surgical implantation in order to work with our body’s current hardware (including the brain), but having the body actually grow and/or repair these devices using DNA instruction would be the next logical step of innovation if it is eventually feasible.

Malleable Human Nature

When people discuss complex issues such as social engineering, sustainability, crime-reduction, etc., it is often mentioned that there is a fundamental barrier between our current societal state and where we want or need to be, and this barrier is none other than human nature itself.  Many people in power have tried to change human behavior with brute force while operating under the false assumption that human beings are analogous to some kind of blank slate that can simply learn or be conditioned to behave in any way without limits. This denial of human nature (whether implicit or explicit) has led to a lot of needless suffering and has also led to the de-synchronization of biological and cultural evolution.

Humans often think that they can adapt to any cultural change, but we often lose sight of the detrimental power that technology and other cultural inventions and changes can have over our physiological and psychological well-being. In a nutshell, the speed of cultural evolution can often make us feel like a fish out of water, perhaps better suited to live in an environment closer to our early human ancestors.  Whatever the case, we must embrace human nature and realize that our efforts to improve society (or ourselves) will only have long term efficacy if we work with human nature rather than against it.  So what can we do if our biological evolution is out-of-sync with our cultural evolution?  And what can we do if we have no choice but to accept human nature, that is, our (often selfish) biologically-driven motivations, tendencies, etc.?  Once again, genetic engineering may provide a solution to many of these previously insoluble problems.  To put it simply, if we can change our genome as desired, then we may be able to not only synchronize our biological and cultural evolution, but also change human nature itself in the process.  This change could not only make us feel better adjusted to the modern cultural environment we’re living in, but it could also incline us to instinctually behave in ways that are more beneficial to each other and to the world as a whole.

It’s often said that we have selfish genes in some sense, that is, many if not all of our selfish behaviors (as well as instinctual behaviors in general) are a reflection of the strategy that genes implement in their vehicles (i.e. our bodies) in order for the genes to maintain themselves and reproduce.  That genes possess this kind of strategy does not require us to assume that they are conscious in any way or have actual goals per se, but rather that natural selection simply selects genes that code for mechanisms which best maintain and spread those very genes.  Natural selection tends toward effective self-replicators, and that’s why “selfish” genes (in large part) cause many of our behaviors.  Improving reproductive fitness and successful reproduction has been the primary result of this strategy and many of the behaviors and motivations that were most advantageous to accomplish this are no longer compatible with modern culture including the long-term goals and greater good that humans often strive for.

Humans no longer exclusively live under the law of the jungle or “survival of the fittest” because our humanistic drives and their cultural reinforcements have expanded our horizons beyond simple self-preservation or a Machiavellian mentality.  Many humans have tried to propagate principles such as honesty, democracy, egalitarianism, immaterialism, sustainability, and altruism around the world, and they are often high-jacked by our often short-sighted sexual and survival-based instinctual motivations to gain sexual mates, power, property, a higher social status, etc.  Changing particular genes should also allow us to change these (now) disadvantageous aspects of human nature and as a result this would completely change how we look at every problem we face. No longer would we have to say “that solution won’t work because it goes against human nature”, or “the unfortunate events in human history tend to recur in one way or another because humans will always…”, but rather we could ask ourselves how we want or need to be and actually make it so by changing our human nature. Indeed, if genetic engineering is used to accomplish this, history would no longer have to repeat itself in the ways that we abhor. It goes without saying that a lot of our behavior can be changed for the better by an appropriate form of environmental conditioning, but for those behaviors that can’t be changed through conditioning, genetic engineering may be the key to success.

To Be or Not To Be?

It seems that we have been given a unique opportunity to use our ever increasing plethora of experiential data and knowledge and combine it with genetic engineering techniques to engineer a social organism that is by far the best adapted to its environment.  Additionally, we may one day find ourselves living in a true global utopia, if the barriers of human nature and the de-synchronization of biological and cultural evolution are overcome, and genetic engineering may be the only way of achieving such a goal.  One extremely important issue that I haven’t mentioned until now is the ethical concerns regarding the continued use and development of genetic engineering technology.  There are obviously concerns over whether or not we should even be experimenting with this technology.  There are many reasonable arguments both for and against using this technology, but I think that as a species, we have been driven to manipulate our environment in any way that we are capable of and this curiosity is a part of human nature itself.  Without genetic engineering, we can’t change any of the negative aspects of human nature but can only let natural selection run its course to modify our species slowly over time (for better or for worse).

If we do accept this technology, there are other concerns such as the fact that there are corporations and interested parties that want to use genetic engineering primarily if not exclusively for profit gain (often at the expense of actual universal benefits for our species) and which implement questionable practices like patenting plant and animal food sources in a potentially monopolized future agricultural market.  Perhaps an even graver concern is the potential to patent genes that become a part of the human genome, and the (at least short term) inequality that would ensue from the wealthier members of society being the primary recipients of genetic human enhancement. Some people may also use genetic engineering to create new bio-warfare weaponry and find other violent or malicious applications.  Some of these practices could threaten certain democratic or other moral principles and we need to be extremely cautious with how we as a society choose to implement and regulate this technology.  There are also numerous issues regarding how these technologies will affect the environment and various ecosystems, whether caused by people with admirable intentions or not.  So it is definitely prudent that we proceed with caution and get the public heavily involved with this cultural change so that our society can move forward as responsibly as possible.

As for the feasibility of the theoretical applications mentioned earlier, it will likely be computer simulation and computing power that catalyze the knowledge base and capability needed to realize many of these goals (by decoding the incredibly complex interactions between genes and the environment) and thus will likely be the primary limiting factor. If genetic engineering also involves expanding the DNA components we have to work with, for example, by expanding our base-four system (i.e. four nucleotides to choose from) to a higher based system through the use of other naturally occurring nucleotides or even the use of UBPs (i.e. “Unnatural Base Pairs”), while still maintaining low rates of base-pair mismatching and while maintaining adequate genetic information processing rates, we may be able to utilize previously inaccessible capabilities by increasing the genetic information density of DNA.  If we can overcome some of the chemical natural selection barriers that were present during abiogenesis and the evolution of DNA (and RNA), and/or if we can change the very structure of DNA itself (as well as the proteins and enzymes that are required for its implementation), we may be able to produce an entirely new type of genetic information storage and processing system, potentially circumventing many of the limitations of DNA in general, and thus creating a vast array of new species (genetically coded by a different nucleic acid or other substance).  This type of “nucleic acid engineering”, if viable, may complement the genetic engineering we’re currently performing on DNA and help us to further accomplish some of the aforementioned goals and applications.

Lastly, while some of the theoretical applications of genetic engineering that I’ve presented in this post may not sound plausible at all to some, I think it’s extremely important and entirely reasonable (based on historical precedent) to avoid underestimating the capabilities of our species.  We may one day be able to transform ourselves into whatever species we desire, effectively taking us from trans-humanism to some perpetual form of conscious evolution and speciation.  What I find most beautiful here is that the evolution of consciousness has actually led to a form of conscious evolution. Hopefully our species will guide this evolution in ways that are most advantageous to our species, and to the entire diversity of life on this planet.

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Historical Hypotheticals: Universal Acceptance of Birth Control

This post is a part of a series I’m writing called: “Historical Hypotheticals”.  My intention in this series is to create various thought experiments related to altering particular variables in history, and analyzing their potential ramifications.  I’m creating this series not only to incite critical thinking by the readers, but also for some pure entertainment value.  Enjoy!

As I mentioned in my previous post within this series, changing one variable in history can have profound consequences, and there is simply no way to know “what would have been” had we changed even one minute variable, let alone complex or compounded variables.  While I acknowledge this, the purpose of this series is to analyze potential gross effects that result from any particular change in the past.  These possible effects should have a reasonable degree of plausibility based on examining some causal relationships.  That is all I’m trying to accomplish here.  Clearly, we can never know for sure “what would have been”, as we simply don’t have enough data, nor enough knowledge of some of these complex relationships between variables.  That said, let’s begin.

Introduction

Various methods of birth control have been utilized for centuries.  The earliest recorded evidence of the use of birth control can be found in the Egyptian Kahun Papyrus from 1850 BCE and shortly thereafter in the Ebers Papyrus in 1550 BCE, where various materials were used as either anti-spermicidal pessaries/suppositories or for cervical obstruction.  There are early Chinese references to coitus reservatus and coitus obstructus dating from the 7th century BCE (although this practice may have been primarily used to preserve the man’s “yang” as opposed to a means for birth control).  We can also find references to coitus interruptus being used as a form of contraception dating from the 6th century BCE within the Book of Genesis.  Centuries later, we find references documenting the use of condoms.  Throughout history, there have also been various documented uses of abortifacients (and other methods to accomplish an abortion or miscarriage), anti-fertility substances, etc.  When no birth control methods were available, infanticide was often used in its place.

The reasons for its use may be universal, but the practice itself is not.  There are a number of cultures that have prohibited the practice in one way or another and these groups’ influences have perpetuated up to this day.  My historical hypothetical will involve altering the history of birth control, specifically its prohibition within these various cultures.  For the purposes of this discussion, I am going to broaden the typical definition of “birth control” to include not only contraceptives, but also any and all means of terminating a pregnancy, as well as infanticide (assuming no birth control methods are available).  What changes might we expect if all cultures had embraced birth control?  To answer this question, I plan to analyze some of these prohibitive groups, and discuss their influence on society over time.

Birth Control Prohibition

There are a range of birth control prohibitions when compared cross-culturally.  Some cultures have banned only particular methods of birth control, where others have banned the practice altogether.  Some may allow certain contraceptive methods (e.g. early withdrawal or “coitus interruptus”), as long as they don’t include any artificial contraceptive device (e.g. condoms, pessaries/suppositories, etc.), while the majority of others may allow any type of contraceptive methods and only restrict their prohibition to that of abortion and/or infanticide.  Which groups had the largest impact on society in terms of birth control prohibition?

Judeo-Christian Religions

Christianity, specifically the Roman Catholic Church, has probably been the largest influence in terms of birth control prohibition.  From the time the proto-orthodox church began to materialize in the 1st century CE, it has maintained that the purpose of sexual intercourse is procreation; therefore contraceptive sex, which deliberately inhibits that purpose, is seen as a violation of natural law.  The story of Onan found in the Book of Genesis (a reference mentioned earlier), mentions his use of the withdrawal technique and the subsequent wrath of God toward Onan (i.e. God killing him), and this story was interpreted by early Christians as a divine declaration of God’s prohibitive view toward contraceptive measures, namely when a man “spills his seed”.

It should be noted that all non-Catholic branches of Christianity had held this same position on birth control until 1930, when the Anglican Communion changed its policy.  After this occurred, it wasn’t long before a few other Christian denominations followed suit by loosening their restrictions on birth control in one way or another.  The Roman Catholic Church, however, has maintained its stance since it began.

As for Judaism, there appears to be quite a range of views on the issue.  It seems that most Jews have agreed (and still agree today) that a man “spilling” his seed is prohibited by God, based on the story of Onan.  After all, The Old Testament’s prohibitive references to birth control were a part of the Jewish Hebrew Bible, the Torah.  Orthodox Jews, being the most strict on the issue, tend to disagree with the use of any birth control accept under certain circumstances such as when a couple already has two children.  However, the passages in the Torah have been interpreted quite literally by some Orthodox and Conservative Jews to only exclude birth control methods such as contraceptive barriers (e.g. condoms), and/or coitus interruptus (i.e. the technique used by Onan), but apparently this does not necessarily exclude the use of hormonal contraceptives.  The Reform branch of Judaism, being the most liberal, has come to accept any use of birth control based on a couple’s own judgement.  Lastly, it should be noted that Jews that follow halakah, based on some Talmudic traditions, will not have sex during the 11 to 14 days after the woman begins her menstrual cycle, thus precluding these Jews from utilizing natural “calendar-based” contraceptive methods.

Islam (a related Abrahamic religion) doesn’t appear to have any universal restrictions on birth control as neither Mohammad nor the Quran explicitly prohibited it.  Some groups of Muslims may disagree with one or more types of birth control, but generally there is little controversy over the issue.  I mention Islam because all of the Abrahamic religions have adhered to the aforementioned adage “be fruitful and multiply” (or a similar adage) and thus they all had an intra-religious benefit in terms of population increase, even if Islam (for example) has never formally prohibited birth control.

To be clear, abortion and infanticide seem to be almost universally prohibited by the Abrahamic religions, and so any instances of accepted forms of birth control within these religions (mentioned above) exclude these two forms of “birth control” (based on my broadened definition given earlier).

Long Term Effects

Population Boost for More Effective Memes

It is important to realize that the birth control ban promoted by Christianity had profound implications, not only for society in general, but also for the fecundity and longevity of the religion itself, since a ban on birth control induces an increase in population.  Followers of the religion would naturally tend to increase in number more than the non-followers whom didn’t heed the church’s instruction.  Now granted, after Constantine converted to Christianity, and the Roman Catholic church grew in terms of size and power shortly thereafter, even non-believers were affected by the church’s orders simply because of the degree to which the church influenced the societal views and law of the land at the time.  While this may be true, followers of the religion over the long run would still be affected, on average, more than non-followers.  This ban on birth control combined with the Old Testament adage “be fruitful and multiply”, meant that over time the proportion of Christians would increase and so would the influence of a birth control ban (as well as other Christian constructs) on the rest of society.

It is likely that the Jewish religion also benefited from any of these intra-religious birth control prohibitions, based on the principle of population increase mentioned above.  It may not have had as much of a population boost benefit when compared to Christianity, due to its wider acceptance of various forms of birth control.  Judaism’s influence on the rest of society (in terms of birth control) was also probably less effective than Christianity‘s, since Christianity has been the dominant religion since the early part of the last millennium (the millennium with the largest growth in world population), once again due in great part to it’s political support by the Roman empire.

The Judeo-Christian religions are not alone in terms of benefiting from this type of prohibition.  Other nations and cultures have benefited (in some ways) from the population boost, especially when they have been trying to overcome or dominate rival nations.  In modern times, there have been numerous efforts and grants offered to countries in the developing world, to decrease the number of those born into poverty, and some of those nations’ leaders have refused this assistance in one way or another.  For example, in the case of Uganda or Nigeria, there have recently been grant funds available from some charitable foundations for starting some family planning programs, but the president of Uganda wants more Ugandans, and Nigeria has been having rivalry between ethnic groups, so there is little chance of them adopting such programs.

Increased Number of Unwanted Children

One of the detriments to society caused by these bans was realized when the number of unwanted children grew, and some parents began to abandon their infants on the churches’ doorsteps.  Eventually this became so common, that many churches were put to use as orphanages to accommodate this new influx.  I also find it likely that an increase in the number of orphans may have provided a net benefit to the church simply because it drove a societal incentive to give the church more money (for the children) and I surmise that a portion of those funds, albeit not all of them, were used to support a growing number of clergy and other expenditures not related to orphan care.

It goes without saying that this influx of unwanted children, regardless of anyone benefiting has resulted in some disastrous secondary consequences for society which I plan to mention in a short while.

Effects of Birth Control Tolerance

Redistribution of Religious Influence

It seems reasonable to assume that had there not been a Judeo-Christian ban on birth control, the success and growth of the religions would have at least been stunted.  This growth stunt may have precipitated a number of changes in history, including a reduction of influence on: religiously justified war, the Christian hurdle placed on scientific progress by the Inquisition et al, the violent cultural intolerance as seen during the conquest of the Americas, the suppression of individualism, the suppression of women’s rights (including the well-known witch hunts; among those “hunted” were midwives possessing knowledge of birth control methods), and many other effects brought on by a dominator-culture.  Now it is certainly true that if the Judeo-Christian influence had been reduced, the world would have also never received any of the benefits of that particular religion, however many of those benefits stemming from the church such as various charitable actions, support groups, community events, etc., have also been provided by many non-religious and humanitarian organizations, and are seen cross-culturally regardless of religion.  In my opinion, the societal drawbacks brought on by Judeo-Christian influence (Christianity in particular) have far outweighed any benefits.

Looking at the population boost principle, we can also surmise that if birth control had been widely accepted in the Judeo-Christian religions, the influence of other historically non-dominant religions may have increased.  Buddhism, Hinduism, Neo-Paganism, and many others have allowed either most or all forms of birth control over time and may have had a much greater following and impact on society had they co-existed with a population of members comparable to that of Christianity.

Less Unwanted Children

If birth control had been widely accepted and used, there would have been a much smaller number of orphans and/or unwanted children, which reduces a number of secondary societal consequences, including one I find quite significant — a substantial decrease in crime.

Less Crime

It’s not at all difficult to see that promoting or allowing reasonable access to birth control methods would lead to a smaller number of unwanted children, and this would thereby reduce the number of would-be criminals.  It is even less difficult to see this relationship in today’s world when we look at the fact that a disproportionate number of these children are products of poor, less educated, single-parents.  Criminologists have long known that childhood poverty and a single-parent household are among the strongest predictors that a child will have a criminal future.  I’m confident that this correlation (between poverty and crime at least) has roughly been the case throughout all of history.

To help quantify this supposed correlation between crime and birth control prohibition, we could look at the time frame approximately 15-25 years after abortion was broadly legalized via Roe v. Wade (back in 1973), as this is when we would have expected a good portion of the “would-be” cohort of children to be entering their criminal prime (had they been born, and if they indeed became criminals).  This time frame would have started in the late 80’s and continued through the 90’s.  Perhaps astonishingly, criminologists have indeed found that during this time frame, crime had substantially dropped to levels not seen since the 1950’s.  In fact, according to several economists, abortion is believed to have accounted for between 30 and 50% of this drop in crime.  It should be noted that these numbers have been calculated using several reliable models of data analysis, after controlling for a number of other crime-reduction factors (e.g. increased number of police, harsher prison sentences, crack market crash, etc.).

While this drop in crime (due to a decrease in unwanted children) was precipitated by abortion, other birth control options presumably had a similar effect on crime rates (unfortunately we don‘t seem to have the data required to test this hypothesis).  That is, had we had a ban on all forms of birth control in 1973 (and the following 25 years), I believe we would have seen a dramatic increase in the crime rate as a result.

Birth Control Efficacy and Cost

Had birth control been widely accepted by all cultures, its efficacy would have also improved much faster over time.  After all, the cultural prohibitions led to a decrease in any and all knowledge pertaining to birth control, and this almost froze any means of progress or improvement.  Even looking back to Roe v. Wade, as the amount of access to abortion increased, the safety and efficacy of the procedure improved over time as a result.  Likewise, the more widely accepted (and thus used) a method of birth control is, the cheaper it becomes over time.

Women’s Rights

I have no doubts that a wide acceptance of birth control starting centuries ago would have changed history for women quite substantially.  Women’s largest role in history has been child-rearing, and if birth control options for women had been widely accepted, women’s roles would have inevitably changed a long time ago.  Not only would women’s rights (over their own bodies) have increased, but women would have increased their opportunities for other roles in society in terms of occupation, involvement in politics, positions of authority, etc., simply because their previous historical “purpose” would have become but one of a number of different purposes, just as we’ve seen in more modern times.  Giving women a longer run in a society with more equal rights between the sexes, would have created a more balanced and peaceful world since partnership societies would have been more likely to exist to counter the patriarchal dominator societies that we’ve seen throughout most of history.

Summary

It seems to me that a widespread acceptance of birth control starting centuries ago would have dramatically altered history.  One could say that some of the most profound effects would have been: a redistribution of religious influence (and potentially an accelerated Scientific Revolution), less crime, and perhaps an increase in partnership societies stemming from an increase in equal rights for women.  Perhaps one of the most ironic truths, summarized by the so-called “Roe effect” is the inevitability that those that are most apt to using and promoting the availability of birth control may eventually disappear from the gene pool, if they also happen to have less children (on average) when compared to those within the more prohibitive groups.  This may happen as a result of a redistribution of parental indoctrination.  To put it another way, in order for this meme to live on, birth control advocates may need to have more children (or more specifically, higher survival rates) than those that prohibit the practice.  If this is not the case in the future, then the sudden shift we’ve had in birth control use and availability in the last few decades may end up becoming a temporary historical anomaly.

Historical Hypotheticals: The Belated Birth of Christianity

This post is a part of a series I’m writing called: “Historical Hypotheticals”.  My intention in this series is to create various thought experiments related to altering particular variables in history, and analyzing their potential ramifications.  I’m creating this series not only to incite critical thinking by the readers, but also for some pure entertainment value.  Enjoy!

Introduction

What if Christianity had sprung up during a different time, specifically a time further in the future?  For example, what if it had sprung up some time after the printing press had been invented by Gutenberg (or even after it had become commonplace)?  How would the religion differ from what has been passed down to us today?

There’s obviously no way to know for sure what would happen historically if we were to change even one seemingly insignificant variable, let alone a complex variable such as a time shift.  Obviously strong arguments could be made that a person like Jesus (i.e. a 1st century Jewish apocalypticist) would never have existed around the time the printing press was invented.  My intent in this post is simply to point out some plausible effects that a cultural time shift would have on something as seemingly rock-solid and influential as the Christian religion.  It goes without saying that Christianity, as well as the canon of scripture that accompanied it (i.e. The Bible), probably had more influence on Western civilization than any other religion (or book for that matter).  If its theology, inception, and influence could be substantially altered by merely changing the time it came about, I believe that this demonstrates just how random the course of history (and the fate of a religion) really is.  To help us analyze my hypothetical scenario, I think that we need to examine what I find to be two important elements therein.  First, how would this invention (the printing press) have directly affected the preservation of these memes, that is, Jesus’ teachings and the testaments of his followers (both contemporary and posthumous)?  Second, how would this invention have indirectly affected the religious movement, its creation, its acceptance, etc., via any societal changes that ensued after the printing press’ commonplace usage?

Meme Preservation

In order to address the first question, we must understand what types of people were living around Jesus when he was alive, that is, in 1st century Palestine – specifically those people living in rural Galilee.  As it turns out, the majority of the people living in this area were poor, illiterate peasants.  Out of those people, a smaller fraction spoke Greek, and those that did speak Greek more than likely spoke only enough to get by for the purposes of making simple business transactions with Greek-speaking traders.  So, it is unlikely that any of Jesus’ disciples or early followers were able to read, let alone write (this was a much harder task taking several years of considerable effort and expense once a person was already able to read).  It is even less likely still, that any of Jesus’ early followers living in rural Galilee could write in Greek.

Greek literacy (both reading and writing) is important because Greek was the only language used to write the earliest manuscripts we have found to date, specifically those manuscripts that would eventually constitute the Christian canon of scripture, that is, the New Testament.  If it was unlikely that any of Jesus’ earliest followers could write in Greek, then the earliest canonical writings we have were not written by Jesus’ earliest followers, but rather by fairly well-educated people living miles away from rural Galilee and living years later (the earliest manuscripts we have are dated around 15 to 20 years after Jesus’ death).  This means that the contemporary teachings of Jesus were most likely learned and passed on through oral traditions.

For those of us that have ever played the children’s game “Telephone”, it is easy to see how simple verbalized concepts, phrases, etc., can change even to the point of incomprehensibility.  Now granted, when children play this game, they usually whisper in order to decrease the fidelity of what is spoken (otherwise the game would be much less entertaining).  When Jesus’ earliest followers passed on their oral traditions, rather than whispering to a dozen people or so, they translated the stories into many different languages, modified the stories with hyperbole and exaggeration, and introduced various discrepancies as the oral traditions passed from one person to thousands more living in various regions of the world spanning over many years.  So it is most likely that the earliest canonical texts we have do not accurately represent the earliest oral traditions.  Certainly some things may have been preserved, but we cannot deny the high likelihood, if not certainty, that many things were indeed changed or permanently lost before any of these traditions were first composed in written form.  This poor fidelity is simply a well-known and unavoidable drawback of oral transmission.

As soon as these oral traditions began to be written down in manuscript form, the propensity for errors dramatically decreased.  However, there were still many errors introduced (some intentionally and others accidentally) by some scribes over the years.  In fact, this can be seen by examining the more than 5800 Greek manuscripts of the books of the New Testament that exist today.  Throughout the production of these manuscripts, there were several hundred thousand variations introduced.  Now certainly the majority of these variations are spelling errors, slips of the pen, and other simple errors which are relatively insignificant.  However, other errors, such as those caused by a misreading or mistranslation of the scriptio continua Greek style, an accidental occurrence of parablepsis and/or homoeoteleuton during the copying process, or even those variations that were intentionally made by scribes (whether intending to deceive or not) introduced significant changes into the text.  Some of these changes have significant theological implications and are therefore noteworthy.

If several hundred thousand variations were introduced into the written forms of these supposed apostolic views of the teachings of Jesus, then how many variations were introduced in the prior oral traditions?  After all, written language has far more fecundity, fidelity, and longevity than oral language.  So, based on the variations we’ve seen in written form, it seems extremely likely that there were far more variations in the oral traditions that preceded them (at least more variations per transmission).  With all of these variations, both written and oral, it is likely that the original teachings of Jesus varied significantly from what has been “preserved” to this day.

It should be clear that the fecundity, fidelity, and longevity of biblical manuscripts improved dramatically with Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press and at the point that the press became universally available, the process of writing duplicate manuscripts became obsolete, and the previous textual errors caused by the scribes writing them was no longer an issue (obviously intentional alterations made to the texts continued as before).

If Jesus’ ministry was around after the printing press was in circulation, the “inerrant word of God” would have been preserved quite well.  Ironically, the bible is the most printed book in history (thanks to Gutenberg among others) with over 2.5 billion copies made over time, and yet what we see as the bible today, is certainly a far cry from what it would have been had the first oral traditions been printed as soon as they were created and spoken aloud.

In summary, it seems that the hypothetical belated emergence of Christianity, after the invention of the printing press, would have greatly improved the preservation of the original religious teachings.  Furthermore, due to fewer variations in the teachings as presented in this scenario, the diversity of Christian sects, and the subsequent development of the proto-orthodox church may never have precipitated.  We simply do not know which Christian sect would have won the battle over the others.  It was largely a matter of chance, since those particular sects happened to be in the right place at the right time.  To be sure, the specific combination of changes made to the oral traditions and early writings (due to the lack of universal printing and mass production of religious texts), had a considerable impact on which religious sect would be popularized by the Roman emperor Constantine.  Without these circumstances, it’s certainly plausible that the pendulum would have swung in the favor of a sect other than that of the proto-orthodox.

Indirect Effect on Society

In order to address this latter hypothetical element, we must consider what types of changes occurred back in the 15th century, once the printing press became more universally used.  The biggest factor I have read about and concur with is the view that the printing press was a catalyst for the Scientific Revolution.  This can be seen by the fact that a printing press allowed for much faster publication of scientific experiments and results, and it also established a community of scientists who were able to easily communicate their findings through the formation of widely circulated scholarly journals.  Prior to this, any discoveries made were tediously written down in manuscript form, thus creating a major hurdle for scientific progress.

After the printing press became widely available, large numbers of people were able to collaborate and exponentially increase the speed at which they were acquiring and refining scientific knowledge about nature.  Eventually the chemical philosophy, the mechanical philosophy, empiricism, and an increase in mathematization dominated the philosophy underlying all scientific advances.  Once these changes took place (thanks in large part to the printing press), the common view of nature and how it operated changed dramatically.  An increasing amount of phenomena that were previously unexplainable and/or given supernatural explanations (e.g. “An act of God”), were now understood and explained by various mechanistic processes.  More importantly, anything that was to be accepted as truth or proven to be true was now to be analyzed using various scientific methodologies.  The value of physical evidence that was both observable and repeatable increased during this revolution and the scientific verification of any claim began to carry an extremely high weight.  That is, extraordinary claims began to require an extraordinary level of scientific proof in order to be considered valid.

This leads me to talk about the implications that this scientific revolution would have had on the emergence of a religion such as Christianity.  What would the public have thought when they were shown or told about the occurrence of “miracles” including but not limited to the claim of Jesus’ physical bodily resurrection from the dead?  Would superstitious views have dominated the masses and encouraged them to believe what they were being told?  Or would a scientific view, that which was continuously explaining away the previously unexplainable, encourage the masses to question the validity of these claims and hold them up to scientific scrutiny?  The latter seems more likely, and this would have prevented Christianity from even getting its foot in the door, so to speak.  After all, extraordinary claims would have required an extraordinary level of scientific proof in order to be considered valid or plausible.

At one point during this Scientific Revolution, Copernicus and Galileo (among others) began to perpetuate the idea of Heliocentrism, that is, that the Earth was not the center of the solar system (rather it was the Sun).  Prior to this, the geocentric model of the solar system (and the entire known universe for that matter) was the cosmological consensus.  This new view was also seen as controversial because Christianity had already gotten its foot in the door hundreds of years earlier (with its “flat earth” Geo-anthropocentric biblical cosmology).  Had these events transpired in the reverse order as per this hypothetical thought experiment, the religious idea of a flat and position-fixed Earth, and one that was special in some way or the “center of attention” would certainly have been questioned.  Instead, what happened was various religious organizations like the Roman inquisition tried to combat “heresy” by placing Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestrium on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Index of Forbidden Books), as well as banning Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.  Can you imagine if Christianity had never even presented itself until after this era of the Scientific Revolution began?  I don’t think we ever would have had any “Inquisition”, and as a result, scientific progress would have been hindered that much less.

When looking back at the Scientific Revolution and its relationship to religion, I find a comment from Galileo quite interesting: “With regard to those few mathematical propositions which the human intellect does understand, I believe its knowledge equals the Divine in objective certainty.”  Here, Galileo appears to be illustrating how something as perfect and certain as mathematical knowledge can be compared to the perfection and certainty of God.  When we recognize the relationship between mathematics and science, one could go a step further and say that the mathematization used in scientific methodologies serves as a form of authorization of its God-like qualities to obtain an increasingly accurate description of nature.  Furthermore, one could also say that the more objective or God-like qualities of a mathematized philosophy like that of Science seems to have resulted from humans acquiring a certain threshold amount of data and thinking about nature more collaboratively.  One could then look at Christianity as being as successful as it was/is simply because it came before we reached this threshold of data and level of collaboration.  Once it gained traction, it was too late for it to be rejected so easily at the outset of the Scientific Revolution, and so Christianity and Science began to co-exist with Christianity acting as a hurdle for scientific progress.  Even today, we have some scientists who claim to be Christians, despite the levels of exclusivity between that of Christianity and Science as history has demonstrated.

Final Thoughts

In summary, Christianity would more than likely have been significantly different simply because the printing press would have preserved its original teachings far better than the natural course of history was able to do.  Even more importantly, it appears to me that Christianity would never have become well established (if at all) had the events surrounding its genesis been delayed until after the printing press was invented and used extensively, for the printing press catalyzed the Scientific Revolution, and this revolution would likely have rejected or inhibited such a religion before gaining any traction at all.  That said, I also recognize that the success of religions are highly dependent on evolutionary factors and psychological factors (among other factors) including the incentives to their followers that may often outweigh or overcome any scientific evidence, at least from the perspective of those religious followers.  For a related discussion regarding these factors that may mediate the success of religions or various religious beliefs, you can take a look at another post of mine here.