The evolutionary argument against cognitive enhancement research is weak

by JanBrauner 1 min read16th Oct 20197 comments


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.