What is Algernon’s Law?

Algernon’s law is a principle concerning the enhancement of biological capabilities. In Yudkowsky’s original, restricted formulation, it goes “Any simple major enhancement to human intelligence is a net evolutionary disadvantage”, though, like most principles, it comes in a variety of related forms (and names; Gwern calls it the Algernon Argument).

Some people take it to apply to all forms of bioenhancement, others only to intelligence enhancement; some take it to be strict, others to be a loose guideline. Furthermore, like most principles, these various versions assemble into a multidimensional system of mottes and baileys, which makes talking to most other people about it an exercise in frustration. I’m somewhat sympathetic to the loose bioenhancement version of Algernon’s law, but would like to make some general points that strongly qualify it, so as to dismiss some overzealous ways in which I often see it used.

At its core, Algernon’s law is an anthropic argument: any enhancement of biological capabilities, especially intelligence, must come at a detriment to other capabilities, otherwise evolution would have already exploited that possibility for free enhancement. This is the version of the law that I will be critiquing. I have three major issues with it:

  1. The environment to which evolution has adapted us has changed more rapidly than evolution has been able to keep up with; as such, we should expect that many possibilities for improvement have not yet been taken by evolutionary processes.
  2. There is a significant difference between those biological changes we consider to be “enhancements” or “improvements” and those changes which increase evolutionary fitness; evolution only directly acts to increase the latter, not the former. So, even if we were in an evolutionary equilibrium state, we should still anticipate the possibility of biological changes which we consider to be improvements.
  3. Human technology opens up possibilities for improvement that the evolutionary “technological stack” is not itself suited to effect. For instance, adding a bit of iodine to our salt produces massive increases in public health — evolution did not have the capacity to create this solution, but human technology did. As such, artificial forms of biological enhancement may circumvent Algernon’s law by simply being beyond the capabilities of evolution to even execute, let alone optimize for.

I’ll expand on each of these points in detail below.

Against Algernon

1. The Environment has Changed

Evolution creates beings fit for certain environments; when the environment changes, they can be severely hindered or helped, as a drowning hamster or an invasive species might tell you. This environment is not merely limited to the diversity of its flora and fauna, but more generally encompasses the possibilities of action — the affordance space — and the consequences of all actions. When these change, what constitutes evolutionary fitness may change.

Because it simplifies the argument in a non-destructive manner, and because most people intentionally modifying their intelligence fit into this category anyway, let’s assume that we’re talking about the average first-worlder. Such a person lives in an environment with very rapidly changing possibilities and consequences for actions, medical advances being the most obvious$^1$. Hence, if a treatment improves our intelligence at the cost of some other factors, it may be the case that those drawbacks, while negatively affecting fitness in past environments, are now easily fixable, or perhaps no longer even problems, in the modern environment.

If we’re talking about the possibilities for intentional improvement of intelligence, this point is significantly strengthened: it may be the case that intelligence-increasing supplement X severely depletes vital chemical Y stores, which is why it hasn’t evolved naturally, but supplement Y is available over the counter nowadays anyway. (This is the case with racetams and choline, for instance).

This is the first major qualifier to Algernon’s law: the fitness landscape has changed rapidly in the last century alone, and a few generations aren’t nearly enough for evolution to have already optimized us to this new environment; for many biological traits, then, we should consider ourselves to be in a non-equilibrium wilderness, not in the kind of equilibrium where a principle like Algernon’s law can be applied. This doesn’t apply equally to all traits, though: the environment probably hasn’t changed in such a way so as to make sperm quality more or less important.

2. What We Consider Improvement ≠ Evolutionary Fitness

IQ negatively correlates with fertility. We’re done here — next point!

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