Saturday, July 23, 2011

H+ 2: Uplifting

This post continues the themes that I started in an earlier post; that can be found here: H+

I talked about transhumanism just a little bit, but not in any kind of great deal. Just a general overview, a very rough sketch of what transhumanism is. In a sense, that’s Transhumanism 101. Welcome to Transhumanism 102: Animal Uplifting.  

First, a definition of what “uplifting” means: Biological uplifting (hereby referred to as just “uplifting”) is the act of taking a species and, through genetic engineering and controlled evolution, uplifting that species to a degree of intelligence recognizable to the patron species doing the uplifting. There’s also a concept of “cultural uplifting”, which is exactly what it sounds like but is loaded with all sorts of negative and other unfortunate connotations. I won’t be discussing the concept of “cultural uplifting” in this context. Hereafter, all times I use “uplifting”, I am referring to “biological uplifting.”

Uplifting is not very common in science fiction – it’s not very common outside of science fiction, either. The only immediate example I can think of for uplifting in fiction comes from David Brin, who drafted and wrote the Uplift series, about mankind trying to find its way through an archaic and heavily bureaucratic transgalactic government ruled by the oldest and most powerful races (who wanted to keep it that way). In that series, uplifting created “client” and “patron” species, and “patron” species held many of the same responsibilities towards their client species that parents do towards children. Among the species that Brin has being uplifted are chimpanzees, dolphins, and later gorillas (they actually select a different species to be their patron), with a passing mention of dogs being uplifted. The other example I can think of comes from Eclipse Phase, my favorite RPG I love to harp on when discussing Transhumanism, because that was where the concept of uplifting first came home to roost for me.

Now, it’s obviously easier to uplift species that are already close to human-level intelligence than ones that are not. All life on Earth has the benefit of having come from a single ancestor, and while we don’t look it, we all share similar genetics, and we all have things in common. One of those things in common is the brain; loosely organized, the brain can be broken up into three key parts: the Reptilian Complex, the Paleomammalian Complex, and the Neomammalian Complex. This is called the “Triune Brain” theory, which posits that the brain evolved in steps to match the evolution of life, with each part of the brain responsible for different (stereotyped) things. While the theory has been proven wrong in numerous instances, it will serve some use for us here because it can be used to illustrate the development of the brain over the years. The reptilian complex is the basal ganglia. Its evolution dates back to the first vertebrates; meaning that it was present when creatures developed a spine and the earliest ancestors of the chordate family developed (a chordate being any creature that has a bilateral body plan and is in possession of a nerve superhighway, as opposed to a spread out nervous system). Humans are part of phylum Chordata, as are a great deal of the creatures on Earth (especially the ones that I’m going to posit we can uplift.) The basal ganglia are responsible for all of the basic needs of the creature, including the fight-or-flight response. The next step of the brain is the paleomammalian brain, or, the old mammal brain. This brain is a step “above” the basal ganglia, which forms the floor of the brain, and contains the limbic system. Birds, monkeys, humans, dolphins, and the like all contain a limbic system, which is the seat of emotion, socialization, and other important aspects to being a social creature. The limbic system is why you care about your child – it’s why reptiles can abandon their eggs once they hatch, having completed their evolutionary responsibility, but some species of monkey and other animals will keep their young nearby and raise them. Finally, we have the neomammalian complex, which is the prefrontal and frontal cortex; the seat of the personality, of reasoning, and of sapience. While the triune brain theory isn’t exactly correct, it’s useful for illustrating my next point: the reason why it’s so easy for us to uplift certain animals and not others is because their brain already contains most of the structures necessary to achieve a human level of sapience/sentience. For instance, birds have a complete paleomammalian brain, in addition to the basal ganglia. It would not take much, then, to genetically manipulate the development of a neocortex – I think it could be done within a human generation.

This is what is at the heart of uplifting; genetically engineering species so that they can possess the same brain structure, or a similar brain structure, that allows them to achieve a type of sapience easily recognizable as such to human beings.

Now, there’s a list of creatures on Earth that it would be easily possible to attempt this with. Here they are:
Pan Genus – Chimpanzee and the Pygmy Chimpanzee/Bonobo
Gorilli Genus – Western and Eastern Gorilla
Pongo Genus – Bornean and Sumatran Orangutan
Cetacea Order – Dolphins (all species), Proposes (all species), Whales (all species)
Loxodonta Genus and Elephais maximus – the Asian and African Elephant
Covidae Family – Ravens, crows, jackdaws, magpies, jays
Psittaciformes order – some Parrot species (especially the Gray Parrot)
Coleoida subclass – Squid, Cuttlefish and Octopi
If we practiced bringing back species that were extinct, we can add a few more onto that list:
Homo Genus – Neanderthal Man, Hobbit (H. floresiensis)
Mammuthus Genus (Possibly) – Wooly Mammoth and all subspecies

And, depending upon how hard you wanted to work:
Canidae family – dogs, wolves, jackals and coyotes
Felindae family – cats of all stripes, large and small
Maniraptora clade  Velociraptor, Oviraptor, and Troodon families/species (with modern avian species having descended from this particular clade of dinosaurs. Naturally you would resurrect species within this clade using Turkey DNA rather than Eagle DNA, making them less likely to… uh… eat you.)

In theory, any species can be uplifted with the right amount of given time but in many cases, they would need extensive modification to their body in order to support the physiological changes necessary to house a larger brain. An example of this would be resurrecting the Maniraptora clade – while various species therein were exceptionally intelligent as far as dinosaurs go, by mammalian standards the turkey, the only bird so hilariously stupid I don’t feel guilty eating it on Thanksgiving, is more intelligent.

The animals in the first list are intelligent animals already – most would suggest that they already have some degree of human intelligence. Indeed, some of them may be human level already (looking at you, dolphins), and not require that much genetic work, save for the modification of their vocal cords so that they can learn to speak to us. Others, such as crows and ravens, may need some minor work – enlarging them, making their wings slightly different so they can manipulate tools with them rather than being forced to use their beak or feet – while others, like Octopi, simply need help surviving outside of water and a way to communicate with us. These are extremely minor genetic modifications; with the right level of technology, they’re quite possible. Others, such as uplifting cats, would require fluffy’s entire skull be reshaped to accommodate a more human-like brain, and creatures like the Maniraptora clade would require such extensive modification they would barely be recognizable as dinosaurs anymore (some would say that they wouldn’t be dinosaurs to begin with if we resurrected them based on reverse engineering the modern avian genetic code. There’s a point to be made here I won’t get into).
And then there’s the matter of socializing; I’m of the belief that we should socialize our uplifts as humans and treat them as humans. Obviously it’d be stupid to claim an octopus is a human, but we can expand the legal definition of human (in fact, it’s already expanded in some place to include all intelligent creatures) to just “sapient” and award our uplifts the legal rights that we enjoy. If they choose to develop their own culture then so be it; this is about biological uplifting, not cultural uplifting.

So that’s the basics of biological uplifting – it’s species A taking species B, C and D and evolving intelligence within them recognizable to species A. Uplifting can fall under any one of the currents of transhumanism, but I see it fitting very well under Extropanism (evolution is a participating sport. Intelligence gives humans an edge – why not share it?), Technogaianism (spreading intelligence means spreading the responsibility to care for the planet. Having more than one species to help care for a world means it’s easier to care for that world) and Abolitionism (technology and medical advancement makes life easier, healthier, and in general, better, for those species that can use them. By uplifting animals so that they can use intelligence, we give them access to this technology to improve the quality of their life, as humans have improved the quality of their own – and who doesn’t want to help someone improve the quality of their life?)

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