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Can We Eliminate Struggle? - 2023
Humanity has struggled and suffered for so long that we might be unable to survive without them. We dream of such elimination through technology, but will that dream turn into a nightmare?
Topically, and stylistically this is one of the weirder ones from the archive. It’s ambitious and meandering, and I haven’t edited it all that much. If you come across anything you don’t like, chalk it up to the folly of youth (it was six whole years ago.) Also, I originally titled it “How Do We Solve the Problems We Create?” If there’s anyone with an encyclopedic knowledge of my back catalog out there I didn’t want you to be confused.
If you read many self-help books, or listen to any motivational speakers or even if you just read the occasional inspirational quote that gets posted by that one friend on facebook (you know the one I’m talking about.) You start to realize that certain stories and analogies get used over and over again. One of them concerns helping chicks to hatch. For example:
Some new hatchers assist emerging chicks too soon and/or too thoroughly. Anxiety at this stage is high, especially for first-timers. They misinterpret the needs of the chick and prematurely intervene, sometimes with dire consequences. Some of these dire consequences are due directly to the well-intentioned intervention (ex: hemorrhaging due to torn membranes) and some are due to the consequences of the well-intentioned intervention (ex: the chick’s circulation wasn’t allowed to pump hard enough to allow them to warm themselves up once hatched). The bottom line is, chicks actually need to peck their own way out of their own shell. Without the strengths developed within their struggle, they are left vulnerable to their environment.
This is true for people too. Our life experiences (including how we respond to them) are our shells, and figuring out how to navigate them effectively prepares us to effectively navigate our world.1
This post will dive into the necessity of struggle, which is the kind of thing that demands an analogy, or an inspirational story. But as usual, rather than just starting with a story, I have to explain the whole thing and make it complicated. In fact, as a further complication, now that I’m re-telling it, and in the process, lending the enormous credibility of my blog to the whole thing, we should take a moment to see if the story is actually true. You never can be too careful these days.
A quick search seems to indicate that it is one of those things that’s mostly true though, as with so many things, there are caveats. Yes, the general recommendation is that you shouldn’t help the chick hatch. That said, it’s not an automatic death sentence for the chick if you do. It does appear that more often than not if you help it hatch it will probably later die, but that may be less about the struggle granting the chicken the necessary tools to live and more the fact that if a chick is too weak to break out of its shell that it’s probably too weak to survive period. So perhaps this isn’t the best analogy, but I’m too lazy to find another one.
However, in the interests of being thorough I suppose I could spend a small amount of time trying to convince those on the fence that struggle is, in fact, necessary. Though I would think the chick and the shell thing would be all the proof anyone would need, particularly given how unequivocally I endorsed it. If you can’t establish truth with a quick anecdote, then we’re really in trouble. Sarcasm aside, this is an issue where it’s worth going deeper.
Let’s start at the highest level. Either you’re religious or you’re not.
If you are religious, struggle is built in both doctrinally and observationally.
On the other hand, if you’re not religious, natural selection is all about the struggle for survival. Outside of that, I suppose there’s a third option, where you believe in some sort of doctrine-free spiritualism which doesn’t include any struggle at all, and the universe just grants your desires—something along the lines of The Secret. If that’s the case, you’re an idiot, and you should stop reading.
But wait, you may be saying, you claimed that struggle is necessary. Going from being part of life to being necessary is still a big leap. Very well, for the religious, one has to assume that struggle is necessary on some level or it wouldn’t exist. For the non-religious, non-idiots, it’s a little more complicated, and in fact it is in this area where I’ll be spending most of my time. But we can divide things into two camps:
Camp One: These are the people who believe that struggle is so deeply intertwined with how things work from an evolutionary standpoint, that it would be impossible to eradicate it entirely without consequences worse than the initial suffering. Such consequences might include, but are certainly not limited to, bodily atrophy, diseases, autoimmune disorders, apathy, depression, lack of offspring etc.
Camp Two: These are people who believe the opposite, that technology will eventually enable us to eliminate struggling (and presumably also pain and suffering and malaria and auto-play videos ads on websites.) They will admit that perhaps struggle is necessary now, a la the chick and the egg, or needing to exercise to stay healthy, but that it’s on its way out. Yes, we once lived in a world where struggle was necessary to toughen us up, develop immunities, exercise willpower, and so forth, but that all of the things which were once “powered” by struggle will eventually be powered some other way, or be done away with entirely.
I think both camps would agree that it’s worthwhile and benevolent to remove unnecessary or counterproductive struggle, i.e. unnecessary pain and suffering. The questions which divide the two are:
How cautious do we need to be before we declare that something is unnecessary or counterproductive?
Is there some line, past which, we should not proceed?
At this point you would almost certainly like an example. And one of the best known involves the recent increase in the occurrence of allergies. There are several theories for why this is happening, but almost all of them revolve around allergies being a by-product of overzealous attempts to eliminate a form of natural struggle.
The best known of these theories is the hygiene hypothesis. The idea here being that in the “olden days” children were exposed to enough pathogens, parasites, and microorganisms that their immune system had plenty of things to keep it occupied. Now we live in an environment which is so sterile that the immune system, lacking actual pathogens, decides to overreact to things like peanuts. This is just one theory, but all alternative theories also involve the absence of some factor which humanity previously considered a struggle. Also it is interesting, speaking of peanuts, that the NIH recently reversed their recommendation from avoiding peanuts until children were at least three, to recommending that you give peanuts to kids as soon as they're ready for solid food (approximately four months old) which follows from this hypothesis.
We don’t know with absolute certainty that allergies are increasing because we’ve eliminated some necessary struggles. Though if that is the case, most affected people would gladly trade those allergies for growing up in a slightly less-hygienic environment. Which I suppose makes this a point in the camp one column. This is something where eliminating the struggle was not worth the tradeoff.
If this trend was limited to allergies, I wouldn’t be writing about it. Interestingly, we’re also seeing dramatic increases in the diagnosis rate of autism. While part of this is certainly due to increased awareness and diagnosis, almost no one thinks that this explains 100% of the increase. On top of allergies and autism, you may have also heard that sperm counts are declining. As is usually the case there’s lots of debate here, but what can’t be argued is that fertility is declining. This decrease has been severest in the developed world, where attempts to decrease suffering have been the most aggressive.
These first three examples may all be genetic issues, but as illustrated by the example I just gave—fertility in the developed world—there are also cultural issues as well. Ways in which modernity’s obsession with mitigating suffering has led to unintended consequences.
For example, the number of suicides and attempted suicides has skyrocketed in recent years, particularly among young people, whom you would expect to be the most impacted by recent cultural changes. Obviously there are lots of people who feel the increase comes because teens are struggling too much, but any sober assessment of historical conditions would have to conclude that this is almost certainly ridiculous. On the contrary, as I have said previously, if you remove struggle from a child's life then you also remove potential causes of unhappiness. If you remove everything they dislike, and give them everything they desire and they are still unhappy, then only one conclusion can be reached: they’re broken. If nothing external affects their happiness, then it has to be internal, and from that conclusion suicide can unfortunately often follow.
You may disagree with this theory, and may be that these increases are only a temporary blip, unrelated to any of our misguided attempts to make life easier for kids, not evidence of a long term trend, but how sure are you of this? Are you willing to bet the lives of thousands of young people on whether or not you’re right?
On this last point you may be noticing some similarities to a previous post I did about the book Tribe, by Sebastian Junger. Stressful situations improved mental health. And as wars become less stressful mental health appears to be getting worse. This paragraph from Tribe is worth repeating:
This is not a new phenomenon: decade after decade and war after war, American combat deaths have generally dropped while disability claims have risen. Most disability claims are for medical issues and should decline with casualty rates and combat intensity, but they don’t. They are in an almost inverse relationship with one another. Soldiers in Vietnam suffered one-quarter the mortality rate of troops in World War II, for example, but filed for both physical and psychological disability compensation at a rate that was 50 percent higher… Today’s vets claim three times the number of disabilities that Vietnam vets did, despite...a casualty rate that, thank God, is roughly one-third what it was in Vietnam.
If you parse this out, Vietnam vets had a disability per casualty rate that was six times higher than World War II vets and current vets have a disability per casualty rate 54 times as high as the World War II vets. All of this is to say that there is significant evidence that making things easier (less of a struggle) doesn’t make things better.
For the most extreme view on this problem let’s turn to a response to 2016 EDGE Question of the Year, What do you consider the most interesting recent [scientific] news? What makes it important? The response was by John Tooby, and was titled: The Race Between Genetic Meltdown and Germline Engineering. The gist of the article is that previous to that advent of modern medicine numerous people died prematurely, and this was especially true of individuals with harmful genetic mutations. This is no longer the case, and thus humanity is accumulating an “unsustainable increase in genetic diseases”.
The article makes several fascinating points:
On the necessity of a certain number of people to die before reproducing:
For a balance to exist between mutation and selection, a critical number of offspring must die before reproduction—die because they carry an excess load of mutations.
On how fast this problem can escalate:
Various naturalistic experiments suggest this meltdown can proceed rapidly. (Salmon raised in captivity for only a few generations were strongly outcompeted by wild salmon subject to selection.)
On how this might explain the worldwide decline in birth rates among developed nations
If humans are equipped with physiological assessment systems to detect when they are in good enough condition to conceive and raise a child, and if each successive generation bears a greater number of micro-impairments that aggregate into, say, stressed exhaustion, then the paradoxical outcome of improving public health for several generations would be ever lower birth rates. One or two children are far too few to shed incoming mutations.
This strikes me as one of those obviously true things that no one wants to think about. But it also dovetails very well with the theme of the post, and brings up an issue central to the claims of the second camp, those who believe all struggle and suffering can be eliminated through technology.
In this case we know exactly how to fix the problem, it’s even in the title of Tooby’s response. We just have to master germline, or more broadly, genetic engineering. This isn't some hypothetical technology with no real world examples. The CRISPR revolution promises that this is something we could do very soon (if not already). The chief difficulty at this point rests not in editing the genes, but in knowing what genes to edit. I don’t want to minimize the difficulties involved in that effort, but there’s definitely nothing about the idea which seems impossible. Nearly all experts would say it’s not a matter of if, but when.
As a matter of fact mastering genetic and germline engineering would probably help with all of the examples we’ve looked at. Despite what people want to claim, there’s a genetic component to nearly everything, certainly with autism, but probably also with allergies and low sperm counts and even suicide risk. In theory anything that can be treated with a pill could be treated with genetic engineering; this treatment would probably involve fewer long term side effects. At least health-wise…
Does this mean that the second camp is correct? We can use technology to eventually eliminate all struggle, and also deal with any negative consequences which might attend that elimination?
All we have to do is improve CRISPR to the point where we can genetically modify humans, do some experiments to figure out which genes do what, and the negative mutation load, and the low sperm count and the allergies and the autism, and possibly even the elevated suicide will all go away.
Struggle was necessary to healthy development, but once we master the genome it won’t be, at least not for anything that can be fixed with genetics. In other words as Tooby’s title declares, we’re in a race between genetic meltdown and germline engineering. Obviously we have to win that race, but as long as we do that, everything will be fine right?
Are you sure about that? From where I sit, if we develop genetic and germline engineering of the kind Tooby is talking about, that’s not the end of our problems, it may be the end of certain specific problems, but it’s the beginning of a whole new set of problems. (Perhaps you’ve seen the movie Gattaca?)
I know that the current laws on genetic engineering are still embryonic (get it? embryonic?) But it is nevertheless true that most people already recoil at the thought of designer babies or anything involving modifying genes beyond curing diseases. Up until this point I’ve used genetic and germline engineering somewhat interchangeably, but they are different.
Germline engineering is the process of making modifications which are heritable. If you use it to make someone exceptionally strong, their children would have a greater chance of being exceptionally strong as well. This is why Tooby specifically talks about a race between germline engineering and genetic meltdown, because whatever fixes you made would have to transfer from parent to offspring for it to be of any use. One of the reasons this differentiation is important is that the US has mostly banned germline engineering, beyond this you can find countless articles debating whether it’s ethical or not.
Despite the ban, and the ethical questions and people’s distaste at the idea of designer babies, if Tooby is to be believed, we don’t have any choice in the matter. This means, along with solving the genetic meltdown problem we buy ourselves a whole host of new problems.
Greater divisions between rich and poor: This problem is bad enough already, but toss in the ability for the rich to increase their child’s IQ and health and suddenly you’ve got gaps which no amount of affirmative action, or protests are going to fix. Also there’s a non-trivial chance that this ends up being a positive feedback loop. With the new smarter richer groups discovering additional positive mutations to add to the mutations they already have at a faster and faster rate.
Racial problems: This is similar to above but probably even more radioactive. Radioactive enough that I don’t even want to speculate. (I’ll give you one hint: transracial.) But I’m sure you can imagine several potential scenarios where this technology makes everything a whole lot worse.
Bioweapons: If you can develop positive mutations then you can develop negative mutations. While the delivery for those would still need to be accomplished, none of the technology makes this problem harder and it may make it a lot easier. Which takes us to our next point.
Limited Genetic Diversity: Once people start making modifications they will coalesce around certain mutations, leading to a great number of people whose genetic diversity is significantly less than the “default”. Also as we know there are some “bad” mutations which have good side effects (the classic example being sickle cell anemia.) If a disease mutated to affect one, it would be equally effective against all of them. And following from the last point that disease wouldn’t have to be natural.
Different “breeds”: At some point when this has gone on long enough (and really not even all that long) it’s not inconceivable that you could have various breeds of humans, as different from one another as great danes are from toy poodles. How the world deals with something like this is well beyond my ability to predict, but I can’t imagine that it makes things better.
The good news for Tooby, but the bad news for anyone worried about any of the above is that CRISPR is not the Manhattan Project. It doesn’t take billions of dollars and millions of man hours, it’s something you can do from home. Now germline engineering is more difficult, but not that much more so. Certainly it’s not the kind of thing the US could keep any other country from doing if they wanted to.
All of this has taken us pretty far from the topic of whether struggle is necessary, and our two camps. The first, which believes struggle is baked into humanity, and the second which believes we can transcend it through technology. If nothing else I hope I’ve illustrated the complexities with camp two’s assertion.
Yes, you can help a chick hatch, but most of the time it will die.
Yes, you can make war safer and less connected to the rest of life, but PTSD will go way up.
Yes, modern medicine can keep people alive who otherwise would have died, but their negative mutations end up in the gene pool.
Yes, we can solve that with germline engineering, but that creates a whole new set of problems.
This is a complicated subject and I am not urging a retreat to some kind of prelapsarian past. But I think we should question the idea that any struggle is bad, that technology and progress has all the answers, and that we can do away with struggle.
Despite everything I’ve said, I understand the appeal of eliminating struggle, and I’ve exercised considerable efforts in that direction. But I also have made some efforts in the other direction as well, exercise being the obvious example, but also writing is sometimes a struggle as well. If you appreciate that struggle, consider donating.
I grabbed this from a random website back in 2017, but the link no longer works (404 error), but it is emblematic of the way the story gets used.