Jos de Mul: 'Our world has become so complex that we need to collaborate'

Jos de Mul (1956) is a Professor of Philosophical Anthropology at Erasmus University Rotterdam. He appeared in the opening scene of the campaign film for Challenge Accepted and is one of the driving forces behind the campaign. 'The interesting and innovative part in particular is, to my mind, the collaboration between these faculties. Our world has become so complex that we need to collaborate in this manner to solve the challenges our society is facing today.'

How was it to feature in the opening scene?
‘Actually, I was abroad during the Dies, on November 8 last year, so I totally missed my own 15 seconds of fame.’

Why did you join the campaign?
‘The financial support of universities from the Dutch government per student is decreasing already for several decades. Partly because we do not have a lot of scientists or people from the world of education in our Dutch House of Representatives. People say that’s nothing to worry about, because Dutch scientists and scholars still publish above average in the best journals and with prestigious academic publishers. However, this is merely the result of investments in the past. What will it look like forty years from now, if government subsidies keep decreasing? I’m worried about that. So it’s true I support the idea of asking alumni to donate money to their university. When I taught at the University of Michigan, I noticed that every single bench on campus was donated by an alumnus.’

Together with Frank Grosveld, who specializes in Cell Biology at Erasmus MC, you wrote an article for the Volkskrant about epigenetics and its implications for education. 
‘Because research in epigenetics shows that the effects of learning are inheritable, they last for at least three generations. That’s a great return on investment!
'It appears that not just our genes, but also changes in the regulative chemicals outside the cell nucleus are carried over to the next generations. The inheritance of acquired characteristics is an old idea, already formulated by the French biologist Lamarck in the beginning of the 19th century and it was also supported by Darwin.
There are well-known research findings with mice. If you take two groups of mice, one surrounded with a lot of stimuli and one without, as a matter of course the group of mice that receive a lot of stimuli do better on assignments. But the effect remains in place for the next generations. The offspring of these smarter mice, even if they grow up in the same circumstances as the offspring of the other group, still do better on assignments. Research on epigenetic mechanisms in C-elegans (a tiny worm often used in genetic experiments) has shown that the acquired characteristics are very robust and even last for at least a hundred generations. Putting money into education to educate your population could well have the same effect.’

What is your current research about?
‘I find these epigenetics effects very interesting. They throw a surprising new light on the so-called opposition between nature and nurture. It turns out that nurture is as inheritable as nature. The implications of biotechnology on human nature is another subject that interests me. New techniques like CRISPR/Cas (‘cutting and pasting’ of  DNA) make it much easier to repair and replace genes. Can these techniques change the human lifeform in a fundamental way? Should we support such a development? Will we be the first species that will create its own evolutionary successor? Will these techniques be available for all human beings or will they result in a ‘genetic divide’ and undermine inclusive prosperity?  These are dazzling questions that need to be addressed.
CRISPR/Cas is a good example of what nowadays is often called disruptive technologies. We find these disruptive technologies, which are the fruit of information technology, in many domains. Think for example of the use artificial intelligence in legal expert systems in order to emulate the decision-making abilities of a human expert. It’s quite easy to mechanize simple law cases. Put the rules, laws and relevant facts into a system, and the system will prescribe the penalty or punishment for each offense. Can these systems completely replace judges? There might be an economic impetus if these legal expert systems turn out to be cheaper than human judges. But doesn’t lawsuits require something like human creativity and ‘Fingerspitzengefühl’?’

'Will we be the first species that will create its own evolutionary successor? '

Jos de Mul, Professor of Philosophical Anthropology

That worries you?
‘These nuances are very important. We have to be careful to not make the law inhuman. What will be the effects of the mechanization of law on our society? Will big data analysis and predictive algorithms lead to ‘anticipatory imprisonment’? Will the day come when a police officer can say: ‘According to our computer algorithms the chances that you’re going to rob somebody are very high, so we’ll put you in prison as a pre-emptive measure’? Big data analysis ignores the fact that humans have reasons and also relevant intentions to do certain things, or not do them. Big data analysis only focuses on correlations, it is not interested in causal relations and ‘why questions’. However, in the domain of law and punishment intentions are very important. There’s a huge difference between killing someone by accident on or purpose. These are very interesting themes to take a closer look at.’

In what way does your research add to Inclusive Prosperity?
‘Joris Krijger and I received a grant for an exploratory study about disruptive technologies. The Faculty of Philosophy will collaborate with Erasmus School of Law and Rotterdam School of Management. We aim to develop and start a PhD project this year. It’s still in an exploratory state, but it could be about the just mentioned ‘computerization of law’.
You might also think about a company like Uber, a prime example of disruptive technology. The popularity of Uber affects existing entrepreneurial structures in our society, it affects the whole taxi industry. It’s interesting because it represents a new kind of organization and business model. Additionally, it’s an American company so they’re dealing with American regulations, so it also has an important legal dimension. And when it comes to autonomous cabs and other cars, fascinating philosophical and ethical questions arise as well. What about legal liability and moral responsibility in the case of car accidents with autonomous vehicles? How should we program the software if the car has to choose between a crash that might result in the death of all four passengers and steering to the bike lane, killing only one person, the passing cyclist?
The interesting and innovative part in particular is, to my mind, the collaboration between these three faculties. Our world has become so complex that we need to collaborate in this manner to solve the challenges our society is facing today.’  

More information

Jos de Mul is one of the early contributors to Challenge Accepted, a joint campaign that advances three ambitions that help shape the future: living together in vital cities, striving for better health and healthcare and fostering inclusive prosperity. Join our community EUR Connect to contribute as well.