Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Biologically Uplifting NonHuman Animals and Ethics

Project Uplift? Oh yes. I remember hearing about this.

It had been featured in the news, a year or two ago. Both professional and amateur media had swarmed over a small group of "kooks" whose aim was to alter several animal species, giving them human-level intelligence. Foes of all kinds had attacked the endeavor. Religions called it sacrilegious. Eco-enthusiasts decried meddling in Nature's wisdom. Tolerance-fetishists demanded that native dolphin "culture" be left alone, while others rifkined the proposal, predicting mutants would escape the labs to endanger humanity. One problem with diversity in an age of amateurs was that your hobby might attract ire from a myriad others, especially those whose particular passion was indignant disapproval, with a bent for litigation.

This "Uplift Project" could not survive the rough-and-tumble battle that ensued. A great many modern endeavors didn't.

~ "Aficionado" by David Brin

When I hear the term "uplift", at least in the context of biology, I think of David Brin's Uplift universe. In those stories humans have genetically manipulated chimpanzees and bottlenose dolphins so that they achieve sapience. As genetic engineering technology and our understanding of the basis of intelligence improves, it becomes more likely that society will have to grapple with the ethical implications of such experimentation. As suggested by the excerpt above, even in Brin's fictional future animal uplift was both ethically and scientifically controversial.

While I don't personally believe that such uplift will take place in the immediate future, I do think it is worthwhile topic to discuss the implications of such experimentation. Futurist and bioethicist George Dvorsky has, in fact, addressed some of those topics in a provocative paper about "developmental and ethical considerations for biologically uplifting nonhuman animals"*. He argues that not only should we be allowed to uplift nonhuman animals, but also that we have a moral obligation to do so.

As many transhumanists and technoprogressives are inclined to point out, human enhancement offers an unprecedented opportunity for the human species to transcend biological limitations. These include not just the benefits of what may be gained, but also the benefits of what may be discarded.

[. . .]

Given the animal rights movement's goal to increase the moral circle to include higher animals, and given that a strong scientific case can be made in favour of animal personhood, a time will come for humanity to conclude that what is good for the goose is also good for the gander. Furthermore, it would be unethical, negligent and even hypocritical of humans to enhance only themselves and ignore the larger community of sapient nonhuman animals. The idea of humanity entering into an advanced state of biological and/or postbiological existence while the rest of nature is left behind to fend for itself is distasteful.

Why uplift nonhuman animals? What is it that we hope they will gain? Ultimately, the goal of uplift is to foster better lives. By increasing the rational faculties of animals, and by giving them the tools to better manage themselves and their environment, they stand to gain everything that we have come to value as a species.

Some of Dvorsky's arguments seem to tread close to the idea that animals should be treated equivalently to humans, which I find troubling. It is similar attitudes that have lead to the recent terrorist attacks against biologists. I'm not suggesting that Dvorsky advocates such violence, but he does apparently approve of the legislation in New Zealand and Britain that has banned research on great apes, and essentially considers them equivalent to humans. The irony is that legislation that raises nonhuman animals to the status of "persons" may lead to the abandonment of the neuroscience research necessary to actually develop the techniques for uplifting nonhuman animals to sapience. Dvorsky also argues that his philosphy is non-anthropocentric:

The idea that nonhumans should be uplifted so that they more closely resemble Homo sapiens has been interpreted as a rather anthropocentric perspective. As already stated, the goal is not to transmutate animals in humans, but to improve their quality of life by endowing them with improved modes of functioning and increased health. If anything, the uplift argument is intellicentric and even quasi-perfectionist. Moreover, uplift is primarily advocated by transhumanists who also make the case for Homo sapiens to move beyond human limitations – a rather non-anthropocentric position.

Dvorsky seems to assume that uplifting nonhuman animals necessarily will improve their quality of life. Who are we to say that nonhuman animals live lives of less quality simply because their intelligence is not equal to ours? And sapience is no guarantee of a better quality of life; many humans suffer from hunger, ill health, and homelessness. I'm skeptical that transhumanist-style enhancements will be a fix for those problems, at least in the short term. And since I am anthropocentric, I think that determining how to improve the lives of our fellow humans should be a much higher priority than "uplifting" our nonhuman cousins.

Read: Dvorsky G. "All Together Now: Developmental and ethical considerations for biologically uplifting nonhuman animals" Journal of Evolution and Technology 19(1):129-142 (2008)

Read free short stories set in Brin's Uplift universe:
(via Sentient Developments)

Image: Rock ape investigates postcards by Between a Rock on Flickr
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  1. Anonymous10:43 AM

    It might be an anthropocentric argument but, intuitively, it seems that being sapient does meaningfully improve the quality of life.

    If you were to inquire of a crowd of people, "who here would rather be of lower intelligence?" I don't imagine you'll get many takers.

  2. Hmm, fascinating link.

    However, I think your response contradicts itself (or maybe you are trying to reveal a contradiction you see in the original paper?): Either we are superior to non-human animals, in which case that would be the answer to your argument that we shouldn't say that non-human animals lead worse lives, or we are not superior so you shouldn't have a problem with our being concerned about non-human animals. Still, fascinating article.

  3. Thomas: but you are asking sapient humans that question. Would a non-sapient animal necessarily be happier with sapience? I don't know. Humans do value intelligence, but I don't think it's necessarily true that humans that are more intelligent are happier than their less intelligent brethren.

    Scu: I think there was a contradiction within the paper, since it projects human values on non-sapient nonhuman animals. But there is probably some nonclarity in what I wrote too. I don't think we are superior to nonhuman animals, even though we are obviously more intelligent. Yes, we should be concerned about not inflicting unnecessary distress on nonhuman animals, but I do think improving the quality of life of our own species should be our highest priority.

  4. Anonymous1:33 PM

    And here I thought the real goal of uplift was to find out what they're thinking.

  5. Pam: I'm not sure we'd necessarily be happy knowing that.

  6. almoust intersting this article , but not with many proofs


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