Thursday, December 22, 2011

Revisiting Animal Uplifting

A while back, in one of my Transhuman posts, I took a look at the process and purposes behind animal uplifting - that is, the concept of taking an animal and moving it from it's current intelligent state through genetic engineering, tailoring, and bioengineering, to make it "human" or, more accurately, "transhuman", level in intellect.

There's a lot of watch words in here that make his a complicated preposition - the first and foremost among them the otherwise slippery definition of what defines "intellect". Generally speaking, it often includes some level of sapience and self-awareness, but because we haven't solved the mysterious riddle of how you know you're here, determining what defines self-awareness can be tricky. Any philosophy 101 student can tell you that I can deny you are sapient and self-aware, because I can't prove it. I can prove that there are certain parts of your brain that are firing a the same time, it's true, but given what little we know about the mystery of consciousness and "self", I cannot confirm that you are where you are on a conscious level. Oh sure, you exist as a body and a mass of cells, but when it comes to your conscious? I have to take your word for it.

This is the "Hard" question of cognitive sciences; basically, where "you" come from. We're pretty sure that "you" are not a soul, stored in the brain using it as a vehicle. However, whether brain-mind duality exists or not, we're not sure. I have no doubt that the Hard question will be answered (some doubt that the Hard question exists at all, but I tend to disagree. I think that the consciousness is the whole of the brain, and the chemical reactions in it, and you can transfer those chemical reactions in mid-reaction or mimic them, moving your conscious from entity to another) - but the "Hard" question is in our face when we talk about the purposes of animal uplifting.

Thus, the tools that we use to define "sapience" and "self-awareness" are laughable at worst and curiosities at best. The so-called "Mirror Test" is one of the most commonly used and one of the simplest among them. Think of the mirror test as a sort of biological Turning test; it's used to determine whether or not you're self aware, and you can recognize yourself. The hypothesis is simple enough: To date, only a handful of species have passed the Mirror Test, and they are the primary candidates for biological uplifting. Some of them, however, are not species that one might think.

The primary species that can identify themselves in the mirror (based on external reactions) are as follows:
All of the Great Apes - including Humans (past 18 months), three kinds of Gibbon, Bonobos, Chimpanzees, Gorillas, and Orangutans
Some Monkeys - Rhesus display at least partial self-awareness via the mirror test
Most Cetaceans - Bottlenose Dolphins, Porpoises, Orcas, and Whales
Some Avians - Crows, Ravens, European Magpies, Barn Owls (only one recorded)
Pachyderms - Both species of Elephants 
Ungulates -
Pigs are an interesting case. 1/8 Pigs tested used the mirror to locate something behind them, demonstrating at least some kind of self-awareness in a manner similar to Rhesus monkeys.
 This also makes up the classic list of animals that are open to uplifting, too. Most of these animals have a history as being recognized by humans as intelligent; this is especially true of animals like chimps, bonobos, crows/ravens, dolphins and whales. Some people instinctively regard elephants as intelligent, but I think you have to actually be around an elephant to understand. Pigs are a bit of a surprise, a 1/8 ratio suggests that it was just that one pig.

I can't help but notice a lot of these animals are also considered "unclean" by the old dietary laws of certain religions. This is probably due to observations about the intelligence in some cases, and (as is likely the case with the pig) because the animal ate anything, including dead bodies, and dead bodies were generally regarded as unclean - therefore, the animal itself became regarded as "unclean" by the people who were writing the dietary laws (remember, they did serve a purpose a the time - we didn't have an understanding of bacteria or disease, so these were laws were likely based off of observations and derived as such - "Oh shit. Moshe ate that pig and go sick again, Rabbi." "Well, that one's going on the list for sure." It doesn't do our society any good if everyone gets sick and dies because they eat the same filthy animals.) Still, I find the overlap interesting happenstance.

The list for uplifting, as I've come to derive it, usually includes the following animals:
Chimpanzees and Bonobos
Bottlenose Dolphins
Gray Parrots
More fantastic scenarios, relying on a lot of heavy-duty genetic engineering, may add the following animals to the list:
Dogs (some species)
Cats (some species)
Resurrected species -
            Neanderthal man
            The Hobbit of Flores
            Wooly Mammoths (I'd like to see this one brought back just because)
            Velociraptor (smart girl...)
Some of the ones on that second list are far more likely (sharks, pigs, gibbons) than others (dogs, cats, Troodon). I included that second list simply to give an idea of what the upper goals of uplifting is - to basically take an animal and make it as intelligent as a human, and to include some of the more serious questions about uplifting. While the animals in he first list are usually no more hostile or aggressive than humans are (heh. That's no saying much), there are a few recognized super-predators in the second list I included on purpose.

The likelihood of resurrecting and uplifting dinosaurs, as awesome as the idea is, is laughably slim. Jurassic Park was a good film, and like all good films, it was based on crappy science. It did have the benefit of making raptors a household name, but at the same time, we'd have better luck uplifting actual raptors (hawks, eagles, osprey... vultures) before we uplifted ones that have been dead for a few million years. And then there's the question whether or not they'll even be the same animals, or whether they'll be what humans think they should look like - in other words, are they really Troodon or just a new species that we're calling Troodon?

Still, I wanted to include that second list because I put sharks on there. A lot of people think that sharks are brainless killing machines but time and time again this is not the case. Oh sure, they're scary, but they're more than just brainless killing machines. Sharks are alpha predators underwater - they are the top of the food chain, and when we enter the water, we enter with their permission. At the same time, though, there's a side to sharks that most people don't even see, because they're too busy reliving one of the many scenes from Jaws in their imagination when they see one of those fins. We tend to imagine intelligent animals as being empathetic and emotional, capable of hugging and playing and looking cute. Sharks are none of that. They're monsters right out of the uncanny valley. But it's totally undeserved - sharks have shown the ability to be playful and are curious. In fact, sharks are curious in the same way that human babies are curious - if you see something (and sharks have crappy sight; they don't need it), and you don't know what it is, you pick it up to find out. Sharks don't have hands. So they use the next best thing - their mouths. For a shark, it's a bit and run to see what it is, because they're curious. For us, that's a maw of row after row of steak-knives with the bite force of an industrial-sized hydraulic clamp. That first bite for them is little more than a nip. For us, that's "Oh fuck half my leg is gone."

This misunderstanding is one of the keystones of the uplifting debate. Presumably, we would be able to communicate with sharks and tell them "no, biting is bad. Please don't bit me" and they'd be able to understand. But humans have shown that intelligence doesn't necessarily equal empathy, and a sociopathic, serial killer shark is enough to keep me awake and away from the water for a long, long time.

Sharks are like octopi. Their brains are different from the brains of mammalian species, despite being semi-intelligent and overtly-intelligent, respectively. If we ever do uplift both species, then we'll be creating two very alien species, if only because the way that they interact with the world and they way they perceive things is so radically different from how we perceive them. The goal of uplifting is to give them human intelligence and sapience, but what about a human way to experience the world? With these two species, that can't be done. Their physiology is totally different from ours; and to boot, their mindsets, even once uplifted to human level, would outside of our own norm. We can assume that gorillas, chimps, bonobos and orangutans would think like we do, because they're our closest relatives. We can assume that crows and ravens would have recognizable thought processes once uplifted because they're social critters, like humans. Like humans, they place an importance on the face and on social learning. While we're not entirely sure about whales and dolphins, we can know at least that they display he same emotions that we do now, so uplifting them to human intelligence would result in something at least passably recognizable as human empathy and understanding (part of the trick is that dolphins already appear to have this down; they'll be one of the first species uplifted, simply because they're so close to our intelligence already). There is no guarantee of any of this with octopi and sharks.

Now, I'm not claiming either octopi or sharks can be uplifted. Maybe I'm giving shark intelligence too much credit, and the best we can get is a semi-sapient super predator. And what about squids and octopi? What steps would we need to take to socialize them to recognize us? Remember what I said about the "Hard" problem above? With most species, the "Hard" problem is the same. I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that with squids and octopi the "Hard" problem is going to be a little different, simply because their neurology and their psychopathology would be so radically different from our own. For instance, their brains are spread out throughout their body, rather than located in one centralized area. We can answer our own hard problem, but that doesn't mean that it's answered for other species.

However, one thing is for sure; if we do uplift them, empathy does come with intelligence. This is traditionally the case - sapience and recognition of the self usually come with empathy and recognition of the suffering of others. If they're individuals that we care about, then we try to alleviate that suffering, and we aren't the only species that does this, even for members of other species. For instance, read about the countless stories of people in Africa who have been protected from predators by elephants who came to their rescue, and stayed with them until hey could be saved by other humans. Read about the half dozen times or so that a cavalry of dolphins have saved a lone swimmer from a shark. Or all the times that humans have tried to put a beached whale back in the ocean, or who took in the abandoned chimpanzee orphan so they wouldn't get killed in the wild. The species I listed above are all species who recognize themselves in the mirror and are traditionally regarded as intelligent (yes, humans too). We do think alike, and I'm pretty sure that empathy and altruism come with intelligence and sapience. So there wouldn't be a real worry with some of those animals whether or not giving them human intelligence will put us in any danger. In fact, it's less likely to do so, because we'll be able to communicate more clearly and share new ideas.

The biggest question with the species above is a very simple one - "why bother?" They're already intelligent or close to it, and we can communicate, although communication is pressed. However, that's the thing - they're intelligent, but they still live in a world where that intelligence can't be maximized to make their lives better. Human life has improved drastically with the application of technologies and science; we've defeated smallpox, we're on the verge of crushing polio, and we've extended our lives dramatically. No longer are you guaranteed death if you break your arm. No longer do common infections kill (unless you consider staph and other super-bugs a common infection). Our life has improved dramatically with the application of technology - technology that they can't make use of. Taking these species and uplifting them so that they can make use of our technology, and benefit from our technology, is the ultimate good. We have the tools; if you saw someone lying on the ground dying, you'd be obligated to help them. In fact, if you were the only one here, you likely wouldn't even think about your obligation - you'd run over to help without even stopping to think about it (I say alone because crowd psychology is a weird thing). This is a similar case; these animals are intelligent, but they can't make use of the technology that we have that makes our life as improved as it is. We have a moral obligation to make their lives better, as fellow sapient beings. So we have, in a sense, a moral obligation to uplift them and give them the means to make use of the technology. If they reject the technology, then it becomes their own choice, but until they, they can't effectively make the choice. We have to act in the best interest for all sapience and give them the means and tools.

As for species that don't display the same degree of sapience, I believe that (and I know there are other positions, but bear with me) they'll display some vestigial emotion that we can recognize as empathy. Even sharks must have some kind of empathy - after all, they play. The line for most animals between "play" and "fight" is me being gentle as opposed to me being vicious. If I can tell the difference between the two, at least among individuals of my own species, then there is some level of empathy there.

Does that mean this empathy will extend to other species? I'm not sure how much is instinct as opposed to how much of it is taught. I'm sure that if we uplift sharks, they'll be socialized in a manner so that their behavior can be channeled in useful directions, and the same is true for octopi. The question with these species, though, isn't right now "should we uplift them" (which we should - see the reason above), as opposed to "can we uplift them?" And further more, who benefits from having hyper-intelligent sharks running around the ocean in case we can't?

Uplifting keys into a lot of different sciences. You have sociology and sociobiology, cognitive sciences like neurophysiology and neurobiology, and right smack at the heart of it, the question of how much is instinct verses how much is socialized. If we uplift them, then we should, in theory, be able to socialize them based off of existing evidence that humans have to be socialized. I'm pretty much of he mind that this will prove easier with some species than with others, but it's not impossible.

There's also the question of whether or not they'll want to accept that socialization. I'm sure we can build amicable relations with them, but there's no reason to for them to be "human." We can make them human level intelligence and give them human level self-awareness, but they'll still be animals distinctive from humanity. We can socialize them so that they're respectful of humanity, and realize that humans have consciousnesses just like they do, but there's no reason to come down and say "you are not a chimpanzee. You are a human. Acknowledge it." We as humans would be wise to remember that, and to allow them to be their own species without trying to enforce the notion of "humanity" upon them.

1 comment:

  1. I wanted to point out that the thing about dietary laws being primitive health codes is a myth--there is no evidence that (for example) Jews in ancient times were less prone to infection or lived longer than their pork- and shellfish-eating neighbors.