September 26, 2006

The limits to cultural uplift

J. Hughes recently interviewed animal behaviourist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh on Changesurfer Radio (see my earlier post). Toward the end of the interview he asked Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh her opinion on the potential for augmenting nonhuman animals using future biotechnologies and techniques like neural grafting. She responded by making the case for environmental uplift rather than biological.

Specifically, she imagined an experiment in which a bonobo child would be raised by humans and given all the advantages and social considerations that are given to human children (including and especially exposure to verbal language starting from a very early age). A bonobo raised in this way, argued Savage-Rumbaugh, would be 'uplifted' to a significant degree relative to their default state-of-nature being.

Quite obviously she has a point. Imagine a counter-experiment (which will have to remain a thought experiment for obvious ethical reasons) in which a human child is raised in the wild in the same way a great ape would be today. Tarzan notwithstanding, a Homo sapien stripped of all civilizational accoutrements would more closely resemble a wild bonobo than a socialized human.

That being said, there are definite limits to the cognitive and language capacities of the great apes no matter the degree to which they are integrated into 'human' society and educated. In this sense, if we are to consider and treat them as persons, and should we refuse to help them with meaningful biological augumentation, these primates would live in perpetuity as severely disabled persons relative to both humans and their full potential as uplifted agents.

Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh's thought experiment sparked a discussion between myself and Dr. J. Here's an excerpt taken from an email I received from him:
A final thought on the experiment of raising a bonobo as a human being: similar arguments can and were used to argue that it would be unethical to adopt a child from another race, or to bear a child with a disability. But we don't take those arguments as prohibitive of parents' rights to adopt or bear disabled kids. Instead we focus on the obligation to the child to be raised with the fullest help in facilitating their full flourishing.

In other words, although we generally don't stop people with cognitive deficits from having children, if we find a child being raised by mute and profoundly retarded parents they can be taken into protective custody and adopted by parents who can teach them to speak and so on. Taking a trans-ape ethics seriously might then obligate us to do the experiment you propose, with all the complexity of remaining sensitive to not causing the bonobo existential angst, loneliness and loss of connection with their racial/ethnic roots. (A good thing that our reproductive and adoptive decisions aren't subject to "human subjects" IRB reviews!)

I suspect that as we have more non-surgical means for cognitive enhancement of apes, such as gene therapies and pharmaceuticals, the ethical debate over the 'uplift' of apes will heat up.
Like Savage-Rumbaugh and Hughes, I also support the idea of environmental and cultural uplift for the great apes, particularly for those already in confinement. Dr. Hughes in particular brings up some fascinating considerations that would be part of the uplift process.

Yet, with all that said, such a project would forever remain a work in progress without real biological augumentations. As I noted to J in a follow up email, "Without significant improvements to their cognition and language skills, they would forever remain as hopeless dependents, with the line distinguishing them as dependent or pet remaining hazy at best."

1 comment:

AnneC said...

One thing to note: I think it is critically important in any discussion such as this to avoid anthropomorphic bias in assessments of cognition. (Not that I'm saying you're doing this, it's just one of those things I see as part of my self-ascribed role in H+ land: after all, we humans aren't exactly augmented yet ourselves!)

While humans may have particular language abilities, we honestly still have no idea of the complexity of the communication systems that apes may use among themselves. I would think it rather tragic if humans simply went in assuming that apes are simply "humans minus" or "less evolved humans" without recognizing that evolution (both biological and cultural) may have granted other species things that we ourselves might be able to learn from.

In the Savage-Rumbaugh interview, one thing I found quite compelling was the description of bonobo social behavior and how we might actually be able to learn from them in some respects. I definitely think that we need to embrace our ape relatives as fellow persons and treat them as we would any other sentient person (including proper medical care and access to technology and such) but at the same time, I think that the process of welcoming these relatives into the greater techno-democratic sphere must be a mutually respectful process.

That is, we should not view apes as "retarded humans" but rather persons with a slightly divergent evolutionary history and culture from ours. We need to guard against assuming that some abilities are inherently better than others before seriously examining whether we're assuming on the basis of our own learned cultural biases or whether we're actually making a semi-objective judgement. Discussion of these issues between diverse minds and people from all different cultures will probably help ensure a maximally ethical progression of this dialogue and process.

Looking for, and realizing the benefits of, strengths is every bit as essential in this process as identifying things that we wouldn't wish on ourselves as weaknesses. (Of course there are cases here in which consent can probably assumed, but I would question the ethics of aesthetic procedures like, say, modifying an ape's vocal system without consent so as to allow human-style speech while simultaneously taking away that ape's ability to make ape-style vocalizations -- which almost assuredly contain information that we humans have no idea even exists).