All Together Now: Developmental and ethical
considerations for biologically uplifting nonhuman animals
As the potential for enhancement
technologies migrates from the theoretical to the practical, a difficult and
important decision will be imposed upon human civilization, namely the issue as
to whether or not we are morally obligated to biologically enhance nonhuman
animals and integrate them into human and posthuman society. Precedents for
intra-species cultural uplift abound in human history, providing both sobering
and edifying episodes showcasing the possibilities for the instigated and
accelerated advancement of technologically delayed societies. As a number of
scientists, philosophers and futurists have recently argued, there is mounting
evidence in support of the suggestion that these historical episodes are
symptomatic of a larger developmental trend, namely the inexorable and steady
advancement of intelligence. Civilizational progress necessarily implies
increasing levels of organization and refinement across all realms of activity.
Consequently, the status of nonhuman species and the biosphere will eventually
come under the purview of guided intelligence rather than autonomous processes.
That said, a developmental tendency towards uplift does not imply that it is
good or right; more properly, it can be argued that uplift scenarios do in fact
carry moral currency. Through the application of Rawlsian moral frameworks, and
in consideration of the acknowledgement of legally recognized nonhuman persons,
it can be shown that the presence of uplift biotechnologies will represent a
new primary good and will thus necessitate the inclusion of highly sapient
nonhumans into what has traditionally been regarded as human society. In
addition to issues of distributive justice, the Rawlsian notion of the original
position can be used to answer the question of whether or not there is consent
to uplift. Finally, it will be shown that the presence of uplift
biotechnologies in the absence of the legal recognition of nonhuman persons and
a mandate for responsible uplifting will ultimately lead to abuse, adding
another important consideration to the uplift imperative.
Recent initiatives in Spain and New Zealand
seeking to establish legal personhood status for the great apes represent
unprecedented steps in the history of the animal rights movement. Great apes
are poised to be endowed with those rights that have traditionally been
ascribed to humans, a development that would see their promotion from
non-persons with property-like status to persons with real and enforceable
protections. In all likelihood, and though it may take some time, other
countries will follow suit.
Humanity has been widening its moral purview
for some time now. With rights potentially being passed down to the great apes,
it can be said that humans are widening both their moral and social circles.
This is a trend that will have profound implications for the relationship
between humanity and nonhuman animals.
As the potential for enhancement technologies
migrates from the theoretical to the practical, a difficult and important
decision will be imposed upon human civilization, namely the issue as to
whether or not we are morally obligated to biologically enhance nonhuman
animals and integrate them into a larger postbiological society.
uplifting, also referred to as biological uplift, or simply uplift, is the theoretical
prospect of endowing nonhumans with greater capacities, including and
especially increased intelligence.
A number of trends are in the process of converging which will in short order
force the issue of animal uplift to a head. First, there is the strong
potential for the development of the so-called GNR technologies (genetics,
nanotechnology, and robotics/AI) that will make augmentation possible for
consequently, these interventions will also be applicable to nonhuman animals.
The second trend is the rise in prominence of nonanthropocentric ethics and the
designation of legal personhood status to nonhumans. Third, the potential for
abuse and the creation of wrongful lives through the use of uplift technologies
will need to be offset by sanctioned methods of animal uplift.
for intra-species cultural uplift abound in human history, providing both
sobering and edifying episodes showcasing the possibilities for the instigated
and accelerated advancement of culturally and technologically delayed
societies. As a number of scientists, philosophers and futurists have recently
revealed, there is mounting evidence in support of the suggestion that these
historical episodes are symptomatic of a larger developmental trend, namely the
inexorable and steady advancement of intelligence. A strong case can be made
that life and intelligent civilizations on Earth have been following a general
developmental tendency away from unconscious Darwinian processes and towards
increased organization and intelligent control.
As Steven J. Dick has noted through his Intelligence Principle, “the
maintenance, improvement and perpetuation of knowledge and intelligence
is the central driving force of cultural evolution, and that to the extent
intelligence can be improved, it will be improved” (italics added).
steady march of progress will eventually result in an existential phase
transitioning that will in all likelihood extend to other sapient life and the biosphere itself.
Consequently, the status of nonhuman species and the condition of the biosphere
will eventually come under the purview of guided intelligence rather than
That said, a developmental
tendency towards uplift does not imply that it is good or right; more properly,
it can be argued that uplift scenarios do in fact carry moral currency. Considerations that offer ethical weight to such a
seemingly radical mandate include improved safety and health, the prevention of
abuse, better lives, and minimal acceptable standards of living and wellness
for all sapient life.
In addition, through the
application of Rawlsian moral frameworks, and in consideration of the
acknowledgement of legally recognized nonhuman persons, it can be shown that
the existence of uplift biotechnologies will represent a new primary good and
will thus necessitate the inclusion of highly sapient nonhumans into what has
traditionally been regarded as human society. And in addition to issues of
distributive justice, the Rawlsian notion of original position can be used to
answer the question of whether or not there is consent to uplift.
Indeed, the right to
self-determination and liberty are among the most esteemed of human values, and
as nonhuman animals increasingly enter into humanity’s circle of moral and
legal consideration they are increasingly coming to be considered as members of
the social contract. The very possibility of biological enhancement is
expanding the sense of who is within humanity’s social circle and who the least
advantaged individuals are in society.
And lastly, it will be shown
that the presence of uplift biotechnologies in the absence of the legal
recognition of nonhuman persons and a mandate for responsible uplifting will
ultimately lead to abuse, adding another important consideration to the uplift
Nature versus nurture
Biological uplift is one of
two major ways in which an organism can be endowed with superior or alternative
ways of physical or psychological functioning. Memetic uplift, or cultural uplift,
is distinguished from biological uplift in that it typically involves members
of the same species and does not require any intrinsic biological alteration to
the organism. While biological uplift is still set to happen at some point in
the future, cultural transmission and memetic uplift have been an indelible
part of human history.
Memetic uplift can be
construed as a soft form of uplift. Memes are by their very nature rather
ethereal cultural artifacts, whereas biological uplift entails actual physical
and cognitive transformation. That’s not to suggest that inter-generational
non-genetic transfer of information is subtle. Society and culture have a
significant impact on the makeup of an individual. That said, human psychology
is powered by genetic predispositions that function as proclivity engines,
endowing persons with their unique personalities, tendencies and latent
Proclivities do not exist in
a vacuum, of course, and that is why the environment continues to play an
integral role in the development of the entire phenotype. How persons are
socialized and which memes they are exposed to determines to a large part who
and what individuals are as sentient, decision-making agents. Consequently,
people are constrained and moulded in a non-trivial way by their culture-space.
Humans have moved beyond their culturally and phenotypically primitive
Paleolithic forms owing to the influence of an advanced culturally extended
phenotype and the subsequent rise of exosomatic minds and bodies.
An example of memetic uplift
One of the most striking
examples of memetic uplift was the colonization of the Americas by the
Europeans. From a macrohistorical perspective, the clash of European and
indigenous American civilizations was one between a post-feudal monarchist
society and a Stone Age culture. The wide technological and cultural gap
separating the two societies gave the Europeans a considerable edge in their
ability to successfully wage an invasion that resulted in the embedding of
their political, economic, and religious institutions on the continent. The
Europeans were also proactive about “civilizing” aboriginal peoples – in some
cases forcing them to attend English schools or converting them to
Christianity. Today, very few aboriginals, if any, are able to maintain a
lifestyle that even modestly resembles life in pre-colonial times.
There is a risk, however, of
overstating this episode as an example of cultural invasion or uplift. It was a
slow and protracted process of cultural transference – one in which memetic
transmission was bi-directional (albeit somewhat lopsidedly). Cultural
extinction of native life did not occur, but instead suffered significant
erosion. Further, the colonization of the Americas resulted in the emergence of
an entirely new set of cultures.
This period was traumatic in
a real sense and it is often considered one of the more regrettable periods of
human history. Yet the episode raises considerable food for thought and the
opportunity for some thought experiments. Was it inevitable? If not, how is it
possible that history could have been replayed any differently? Could it have
been done with greater sensitivity and concern for the native way of life?
Would our society today do a better job? Assuming a hands-off policy could have
been exercised with regards to the intermingling of civilizations, would it
have been ethical to allow the aboriginals to continue living a Stone Age life?
Assuming this is truly an example of cultural uplift, in which ways was it a
success and in which a failure?
These are difficult
questions with complex answers. However, as history has shown, the
intermingling and assimilation of disparate cultures was and is an indelible
part of the human condition. Information swapping is a developmental reality
that has been largely unavoidable.
Such is the nature of data accumulation, organization and transmission at the
hands of intelligence. The question at the dawn of the twenty-first century is
how genetic information will be organized and transmitted – and to whom.
Conceptions of progress and
the rise of cultural relativism
The European colonization of
the Americas, along with other similar episodes, is an extremely sensitive area
of debate, often leading to discussions that skirt the fringes of acceptability
in terms of political correctness.
Part of the problem is the rise of cultural relativism, particularly as it as
it pertains to the assessment of ancient life and how it compares to modernity.
Objective assessment is
often difficult, in part the result of the romantic perceptions that many
people carry of pre-civilizational existence and the cynical take some have in
regards to modern life. Factors contributing to this sentiment include the
disruptive nature of technological advance on individuals and cultures, the
failed totalitarian experiments of the twentieth century, the two catastrophic
world wars, the rise of apocalyptic threats, and the calamitous effects of
modern society on the environment.
Driving this negative view
of modern society even further is the prevailing pseudohistorical
romanticization of primitive life evident in popular culture and perpetuated by
a number of intellectuals.
What the biblical “Garden of Eden” and Rousseauian “noble savage” myths often
fail to take into account, however, is how nasty, brutish and short life used
to be. A strong case can be made that social and technological progress happens
for a reason, namely the steady improvement of conditions and the pursuit of a
more dignified and fulfilling life for individuals. Humanity is a
Given where humanity finds
itself today – particularly in regards to the benefits of technologies and
institutions that are all too often taken for granted – very few people would
voluntarily choose to go back to a Stone Age way of life. The memetic
endowments of human civilization not only allow people to actualize and express
themselves better, but also protect individuals from the dangers of nature,
arbitrariness, and undue suffering in general.
A common criticism levied at
this line of reasoning is that it is coming from the perspective of “home-field
advantage.” Given the often deplorable experience of aboriginal people who have
been integrated into modern society, it is often assumed that natives would be
happier living a tribal existence and if given the opportunity would
voluntarily return to such a life. Further, some argue that there is no
correlation between technological development and increasing levels of
Recent events involving Columbia’s
isolated nomadic Nukak Maku tribe contradict these assumptions. In May of 2006,
a group of nearly 80 Nukak left the jungle and asked to “join the White
Family.” This event offered an unprecedented opportunity to determine the state
of mind of those wishing to leave Stone Age life. It is one thing to ask an
integrated aboriginal whether or not he wishes to return to tribal life when he
has never lived such a life, and quite another thing to ask an aboriginal who
has actually been there.
When asked if they were sad
to leave the jungle a Nukak named Pia-pe laughed at the suggestion and
proclaimed that they “could not be happier.” The Nukak, who were used to long
marches in search of food, were amazed at the open availability of foodstuffs.
When asked what they liked the most, they responded with a lengthy list of
items that included pots, skillets, matches, soap, pants, shoes, caps, rice,
sugar, oil, flour, eggs and onions. One young Nukak mother noted, “When you walk in the jungle your feet hurt a lot.” The group is now learning to plant crops and intend on sending their
children to local schools.
At first glance the story of
the Nukaks appears to be a success, but only time will tell. It appears that
the local population has been very accommodating to the newcomers. This is a
far cry from the events that characterized the broader integration of Native
Americans – a development that was marred by the dominating and bellicose
nature of the invaders and their failure to bring aboriginals into the larger
social circle. This is a struggle that persists to this very day, and in this
sense it is still a work in progress.
That said, virtually all
episodes in which primitive cultures are influenced by more advanced ones
represent precursors to the biological uplift of highly sapient nonhuman
Cultural uplift of nonhuman animals
Culture, as many zoologists
can attest, is hardly the exclusive domain of humans. Animals such as the great
apes and dolphins have the ability not just for language skills, but for being
able to pass memes down from generation to generation.
This raises an interesting question: Given that some nonhuman animals are
capable of engaging in cultural activities, and given that we value certain
attributes about human culture, is it both possible and desirable to share our
culture with other species?
The Great Ape Trust in Iowa
is engaging in an activity that is exploring this very issue. In their
experiment, bonobos, which are part of the great ape family that includes
chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans, have been given their own house in which
to live and dwell.
In 2005, organizers placed eight bonobos in a multi-million dollar facility in
what is hoped will be a successful long term and multi-generational experiment.
The house is equipped with
18 rooms that include a kitchen in which to prepare meals and vending machines
that dispense snacks. There are flushing lavatories, an indoor waterfall and
walls for climbing. When it comes time to eat, the apes help their human handlers
prepare meals in a compound kitchen. The bonobos can monitor the front door
with a camera and decide for themselves who can come in – although they are
known for welcoming visitors and often taking newcomers by the hand to show
them around the complex.
In addition to the rudiments
of daily domestic life, the bonobos have access to art supplies, musical
instruments and entertainment, including television. Researchers hope that with
the right stimulation the bonobos, who already understand a limited human
vocabulary, will develop skills that include language, art and music. If
successful, the experiment would show that many activities previously thought
of as uniquely human are not innate to Homo
One of the bonobos, a
25-year-old, can accurately answer questions equivalent to that of a
three-year-old human and is able to make up sentences using several lexigram
words. In addition, because chimps' vocal tracts make it impossible for them to
replicate human speech, the bonobos communicate by using touch-sensitive
computer screens with over 250 symbols.
Like their human handlers, the apes are using their newfound tools to overcome
their biological limitations.
Indeed, over the course of
the experiment the lines between cultural and biological uplift are already
starting to blur. The bonobos have even been given a type of cybernetic
augmentation in the form of a voice synthesizer to vocalize their desires.
Without more significant
biological augmentation, however, the Great Ape Trust experiment has its
limitations. Thomas Suddendorf, an experimental psychologist from Queensland,
is skeptical about the researchers’ hopes that the apes will learn to
communicate more complex notions. He contends that bonobo psychology is
intractably limited, citing their inability to consider abstract concepts such
as past or future, their inability to grasp syntax, and the fact that they have
yet to display active teaching behaviours.
Nevertheless, the Great Ape
Trust model is an excellent starting block for not just cultural uplift, but
for biological uplift as well. This endeavor is not meant to assimilate or
“humanize” nonhuman species, but instead efforts that work to advance apes and
their proto-culture. In this way, bonobos and other potentially uplifted nonhumans
will ideally become autonomous decision making agents within a larger
inter-species society. As the organizers of the Trust themselves state, the
apes’ intelligence, communication, social interactions and cultural expression
must be advanced respectfully, honorably and openly.
In looking at the
colonization of the Americas, and considering ongoing trends in economic,
political and cultural globalization, it appears that more advanced
civilizations influence, either actively or passively, other less developed
societies to come along for the ride. As the human moral and legal purview
expands to include nonhuman persons, it is not too extreme to suggest that
humanity will increasingly come to be concerned with the welfare of highly
sapient animals. Uplift need not be considered unjust or coercive; the impetus
that drives human civilization is one of progress and refinement. Consequently,
it may not only be a good thing to uplift nonhuman animals, but as it will now
be argued, it may also be within the realm of human obligations.
Considering nonhuman persons
Humanity’s relationship with
animals has varied drastically over the millennia.
Animals were once (and some still are) our
predators, contributing directly to the course of human evolution. They have
inspired us to art – right from
the time we were first able to translate our thoughts onto the walls of a cave.
They have played an indelible part in our religions, at once the object of
reverence, and later the object of our dominion. We have made them into our
beasts of burden. They have entertained us. Animals have joined us in combat as
our vehicles, weapons and messengers. We have kept animals as our companions,
tried and punished them in human courts, moulded them into bizarre forms and driven
entire species into extinction. Today, our relationship with animals is still
changing, the most recent development being the rise of the animal rights
The modern animal rights
movement was given its kick-start in 1975 by Australian bioethicist Peter
Singer by virtue of his seminal book, Animal Liberation. Since
that time, Singer has worked to advance the notion that personhood, in both the
cognitive and legal sense, is not exclusive to Homo sapiens. To this
end, he founded the Great Ape Project, which in addition to advocating for ape
personhood, sets aside more modest tasks like establishing minimum space
requirements for animals in confinement.
Singer's revolution is
arguably still in its infancy, but there have been some recent breakthroughs
that are taking the movement to the next phase. New Zealand took the first
steps by passing an animal welfare act in 1999 declaring that research, testing
or teaching involving the use of a great ape requires government approval – a
move that essentially banned the practices. Britain soon thereafter invoked a
similar ban. More recently, in April 2006 members of Spain's socialist party
announced that it would introduce a bill calling for “the immediate
inclusion of (simians) in the category of persons, and that they be given the
moral and legal protection that currently are only enjoyed by human beings.” New Zealand is
current working to introduce similar legislation, hoping to promote ape status
from property to person. Such measures would represent a noteworthy step beyond
mere moral consideration to that of enforceable protections. Should these bills
be passed, states would be responsible for the welfare and protection of
legally recognized nonhuman persons.
The rationale behind the
creation of these bills is the realization that great apes and humans share
similar psychological attributes such as the capacity for strong
self-awareness, emotion, empathy and language. Work in genetics has revealed
that the great apes and humans share nearly 98-percent of their genome.
Various intelligence tests, brain scans and observations indicate cognitive
faculties similar to those of humans. Given the mounting scientific and
empirical evidence, it is becoming increasingly unacceptable to withhold
consent in regards to acknowledging the presence of animal consciousness and
As these initiatives move
forward, and as the animal rights movement continues to evolve, it can be said
that humanity’s relationship with animals has transitioned from subjugation to
moral consideration. And tomorrow it will transition from moral consideration
to social co-existence.
The ethical imperative to uplift
will profoundly impact on the nature of this co-existence. Today, efforts are
placed on simply protecting animals. Tomorrow, humanity will likely strive to
take this further – to endow nonhuman animals with the requisite faculties that
will enable individual and group self-determination, and more broadly, to give
them the cognitive and social skills that will allow them to participate in the
larger social politic that includes all sentient life.
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.
In terms of what humanity
may hope to gain, there are potential enhancements such as greater health and
wellness, increased intelligence and memory, improved psychological control,
longer lives, and novel capacities. Some of the principal arguments in favour
include the recognition of fundamental bio-rights that include reproductive,
morphological, and cognitive liberties. Healthier people, it is argued, will
also save individuals and their governments from spending inordinate sums of
money that are currently required to battle all types of ailments, including
the costs of aging itself. It is also argued that enhancement
technologies will result in persons more capable and willing to engage in
social and political causes. In this sense, transhumanism holds radical promise
for the furtherance of democratic and participatory values.
As to what humanity may hope
to lose with biological augmentation, humans are poised to discard their often
fragile and susceptible biological forms. It is hoped that the ravages of aging
will be brought to an end,
as well as the arbitrariness of the genetic lottery.
More conceptually, human evolution is poised to go undergo an evolution of its
own where it goes from unconscious Darwinian selection to deliberate and guided
Driving this transition is the ingrained human desire to move beyond a state of
nature in which an existential mode is imposed upon Homo sapiens, to one in which humanity can grow increasingly immune
to unconscious and arbitrary processes. An emergent property of intelligence is
its collective aversion to chaos; it perpetually works to increase levels of
order and organization.
These compulsions are held
by many to represent strong ethical and legal imperatives. 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
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.
Issues of fairness, primary goods and distributive
The suggestion that a moral
imperative exists to uplift sapient nonhumans implies that humans have an
obligation to do so. Political and moral philosophers have struggled with the
issue of obligations since the beginning of human social organization, due
mostly to apparent incompatibilities and inconsistencies between liberty and
the sense of imposition or even coercion.
Various frameworks have been
proposed to deal with these issues, including social contract frameworks
devised by Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Kant. More recently, and in the context
of human enhancement, there has been the work of Martha Nussbaum and Amartya
Sen who have proposed a capabilities approach in which an individual’s “functioning” is tied directly to the
quality of their ability to act in society.
Quite obviously these
frameworks have interesting ramifications for arguments in support of uplift
scenarios, but the most potent methodology that can be applied to the issue of
bringing nonhumans into the human social fold is the theory of justice proposed
by philosopher John Rawls. While concerned with human society, Rawls’s theories
reveal a high degree of relevance to issues of animal welfare, particularly
when one ascribes a certain degree of moral worth and personhood consideration
to sapient nonhumans.
One of Rawls’s more
important contributions to political theory was his concept of the original position in which individuals
decide principles of justice from behind a veil
of ignorance. The purpose of Rawls’s thought experiment was to weed out any
preconceived notions of social position or privilege in order to devise the
fairest of social arrangements – the general idea being that ignorance of one’s
social position and capabilities will result in the creation of the fairest and
most equitable of frameworks. As Rawls noted, in the original position “no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status,
nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and
abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that
the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special
psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil
of ignorance.” Rawls’s special claim is that all those in
the original position would adopt a risk-minimizing strategy that would
maximize the position of the least well off.
Rawls understandably chose a
reference class of Homo sapiens, but for reasons already discussed,
there is no good reason to exclude nonhumans from this thought experiment. In
fact, one could argue that Rawls provisioned, either intentionally or
unintentionally, the inclusion of nonhumans by virtue of including
psychological and physical propensities in the list. Consequently, Rawls’s veil
of ignorance should also obscure knowledge of one’s species.
Decisions about justice and
fairness, argued Rawls, would ultimately lead to consensus on issues of rights
and duties and the distribution of social and economic advantages. In regards
to how these principles were to be executed, Rawls suggested that they be
crafted in such a way as to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged
members of society. Considering that nonhumans are completely shut-out from the
social contract and carry negligible social standing, they should be considered
among the most least-advantaged (applying what is referred to as the difference principle). 
Quite obviously, even the
most sentient and social of nonhuman animals lack the requisite cognitive and
linguistic faculties to engage in advanced society; the human monopoly on what
is regarded as “society” has arisen as a consequence of gross discrepancies in abilities. At
first blush, therefore, social considerations for animals would appear to be a
non-issue (and even nonsensical). However, pending enhancement biotechnologies
alter this picture dramatically.
For nonhuman animals these
discrepancies in abilities qualifies as a deficient primary good required for
the attainment of fair and equal opportunity. Like some humans who argue that
they have fared poorly in the genetic lottery, it can be said that nonhumans
have missed out in the species lottery. Thus, when considering agents who are
provisioning for a just society in the original position, and considering that
the reference class should include sapient non-humans, it is fair and
reasonable to assert that they would make contingencies for the uplift of
nonhumans given the availability of the technologies that would allow for such
endowments. To do otherwise would be an unfair distribution of primary goods
that are requisites for political participation, liberty and justice. As Rawls
surmised, individuals in the original position would adopt those principles
that would govern the assignment of rights and duties and regulate the
distribution of social and economic advantages across society.
Given the very real
potential for biological augmentation some time later this century, the means
to better distribute primary goods will eventually come into being and will by
consequence enter into the marketplace of distributable primary goods. To deny
nonhumans access to enhancement technologies, therefore, would be a breach of
distributive justice and an act of genetic or biological exceptionalism – the
idea that one’s biological constitution falls into a special category of goods
that lie outside other sanctioned or recognized primary goods. Such claims, as
argued by Allen Buchanan and others, do not carry much moral currency.
Indeed, liberal theories of
distributive justice necessarily provide for the elimination or mitigation of
the undeserved effects of luck on welfare.
Fair equality of opportunity, argued Rawls, requires not merely that offices
and positions be distributed on the basis of merit, but that all persons have
reasonable opportunity to acquire the skills on the basis of which merit is
skills, in the context of animal uplift, are the biological augmentations that
would enable social interaction at the “human” level (at the very least).
Critics contend that Rawls’s
idea was to examine how a just society could be created no matter the
socioeconomic or morphological composition of its members. The argument from
Rawls, they argue, is that humans need to create an environment that will allow
humans to be happy as humans and animals happy as animals.
What this line of thinking
fails to take into account, however, is the presence of those primary goods in
society that, when not equally distributed, prevent persons from living a just
life. As Rawls noted, each person has an equal right to a fully adequate scheme
of equal basic liberties which is compatible with a similar scheme of liberties
for all. The introduction of uplift biotechnologies will greatly perturb the
sense that Homo sapiens is the only
species on the planet deserving of our most fundamental values.
The issue of consent
While it can be argued that
humans are obligated to integrate sapient nonhumans into a larger inter-species
society, the question of consent must also be addressed. Unfortunately, no
matter how hard we try we would never be able to convey the complexities of the
issue to nonhumans, and thus, cannot depend on getting informed consent from
the agents themselves. In this sense, it is a situation similar to the ethical
quandary of genetic modifications and the consent of the unborn and young
children. Consent (or non-consent), therefore, has to be deduced and inferred
Again, the Rawlsian
framework offers a way to deal with the issue. As Rawls noted, the veil of
ignorance hides knowledge of one’s actual psychological disposition. As already
argued, psychological dispositions can be reasonably interpreted in such a way
as to include the psychological and physical condition of nonhuman animals.
Assuming that a nonhuman would participate in the original position experiment
as a free and rational decision-making agent, it’s not unreasonable to conclude
that they would, like humans, come to the same set of principles designed to
protect the interests of the entire reference class.
Persons in the original
position, it is reasonable to say, would be very concerned about incarnating as
a nonhuman animal and would undoubtedly work to ensure that all the safeguards
be put in place to protect their potential interests. Moreover, knowledge of
how uplift biotechnologies could better disseminate primary goods among the
species would most certainly be a weighty consideration. Actors in the original
position would employ game theoretic logic in making their decisions, employing
the maximin strategy in which choices
produce the highest payoff for the worst outcome. The prospect of coming into
the world as a great ape, elephant or dolphin in the midst of an advanced human
civilization can be reasonably construed as a worst outcome.
Therefore, humanity can
assume that it has the consent of sapient nonhumans to biologically uplift.
Less conceptually, there is
an alternative way in which both consent and uplift efficacy can be determined:
uplift sampling. Rather than uplift an entire species, several individuals
could be uplifted in order to assess the effectiveness of the experiment.
Uplifted animals could conceivably act as spokespersons for their species and
provide a valuable insight into the process and whether or not the change was
Regulating uplift to
Just how uplift will happen,
how it will be ethically administered, and which animals will be chosen are
issues that are beyond the scope of this paper, but suffice to say they will be
challenging issues with some potentially intractable problems that may forgo
the project altogether.
That said, there is one
particular issue that does require immediate consideration – one that will add
a sense of urgency in regards to the implementation of safety measures and
regulation on the eve of biological modification. The issue in question is the
creation of partial human hybrids or chimeras.
The creation of subhumans is
within the realm of theoretical possibility. Transgenic organisms are now
created with ease, including goats that can secrete spider-silk
and pigs that glow in the dark.
It is conceivable that human DNA can be intertwined with those of other animals
to create a number of novel and bizarre physical forms.
Animals may also be
engineered to have specialized physical or cognitive characteristics while
lacking certain neurological faculties. Theoretically, such creatures could be
designed for specific tasks, such as manual labour, dangerous work, or as sex
trade workers – and at the same time be oblivious to the demeaning or hazardous
nature of their work. For all intents and purposes these would be happy slaves.
This is a repugnant possibility
and an affront to humanitarian values. Interventions designed to deliberately
constrain a sentient organism such that it is incapable of empowered
participation in the broader social community is grossly unethical and should
be considered illegal. The ultimate goal of animal uplift is the creation of
equal social partners and not a species to be subjugated.
The most sure-fire way to
avoid this scenario is to extend legal personhood rights to those worthy of
such consideration. As a word of warning, should humanity, for whatever reason,
decide that animals are not worthy of personhood status, and should the human
species not venture down the path that would lead to eventual co-existence with
nonhumans as intellectual and social equals, the doors to abuse would be left
wide open. Animals would continue to be looked upon as property and as the
subjects of our experimentation and petty desires.
For that reason, nonhuman
animals need to be explicitly protected from modifications that would
deliberately constrain their psychologies or physical abilities. Preconceived
and preconditioned existences are as wrongful for nonhumans as they would be
for humans. Further, regulatory legislation will need to be established so that
uplift can transpire under safe, monitored and humane conditions.
A difficult conceptual leap
for many is getting over the species barrier. For many critics, the idea of
including nonhumans alongside humans in a social context is a violation of
naturalistic sensibilities. Such claims are often made on behalf of the “human exceptionalists,” a group that includes such
thinkers as ethicist Wesley Smith.
The idea of “species,” while helpful in such
fields as systematics and genetics, is not an entirely useful concept when
establishing the moral worth of an animal. Once stripped of scientific
nomenclature, nameless organisms can be classified based on their various
morphological and psychological capacities. In this context, animals –
including humans – can be contrasted in reference to an agreed upon spectrum of
minimally acceptable modes of functioning.
Put yet another way,
nonhuman animals such as the great apes can be construed as disabled humans.
When articulated in this way, notions of obligations, accommodation and
stewardship are cast in an entirely new light.
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
Finally, there is the issue
of identity and the potential destruction of a nonhuman animal’s former self.
This is essentially the identity objection. Indeed, the uplifted animal will
barely resemble its former self, and will for all intents-and-purposes be a new
That said, so long as the continuity of memory is maintained, the uplifted
animal will still remember its past, and consequently, retain a fluid sense of
self. The effect may be similar to the way in which an adult reflects on her
A future world in which
humans co-exist with uplifted whales, elephants and apes certainly sounds
bizarre. The idea of a United Nations in which there is a table for the dolphin
delegate seems more fantasy than reality. Such a future, however, even when
considering the presence of uplifted animals, may not turn out just quite the
way we think it will.
Intelligence on the planet
Earth is set to undergo a sea change. Post-Singularity minds will either be
manifest as cybernetic organisms, or more likely, as uploaded beings. Given the
robust nature of computational substrate, intelligence is set to expand and
diversify in ways that we cannot yet grasp, suffice to say that postbiological
beings will scarcely resemble our current incarnation.
In this sense, “postbiological” is a more appropriate term
than “posthuman”. The suggestion
that posthumans will live amongst post-apes and post-elephants misses the point
that a convergence of intelligences awaits us in our future. Our biological
heritage may only likely play a very minor part in our larger postbiological
constitution – much like the reptilian part of our brain does today in terms of
our larger neurological functioning.
And like the other sapient
animals who share the planet with us, and with whom we can claim a common
genetic lineage, we will one day look back in awe as to what was once our
shared biological heritage.
I would like to express my
sincere gratitude to all those people who helped me develop this paper. Special
thanks go out to Anne Corwin, Justice De Thezier, James Hughes, Simon Smith,
Mark Walker and Russell Blackford.