October 25, 2006

Cognitively modified organisms

Jamais Cascio has just given birth to a new term, 'cognitively modified organisms,' or CMO's for short. It's exactly what it sounds like.

Here's how I reponded in Jamais's comments section:

While I've never heard the term 'cognitively modified organism' before, the idea has been around for a while and is already being discussed by some bioethicists, including Princeton's Peter Singer.

Singer and Jim Mason recently published a book titled, The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, in which they argue that farm animals should be neuroengineered to alter their instinctual tendencies and to alleviate suffering.

Personally, I am unsure about this idea. The suggestion that the psychologies of farm animals be adjusted to reduce their subjective sense of suffering is off putting, mostly because it would do nothing to improve our relationship with animals, nor would it result in more humane farming practices. While I can understand why Singer and Mason would push for such an 'improvement' (it's a real and hard fix, after all), and while I run the risk of posing a slippery slope argument, I think such a strategy could open a Pandora's Box of potential problems that could extend outward to other non-human animals and even humans themselves. Moreover, such a strategy would do nothing to alleviate the negative environmental impacts of factory farming.

As a short-term solution, perhaps this is a good idea to help reduce suffering, but I certainly don’t think this should be considered a permanent fixture of livestock.

On a related note, there is the transgenics issue and the development of the so-called chimera or sub-human. Like the farm animal issue, this is also an area for concern. As I noted in my recent animal uplift paper, "All Together Now":
“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.”

No comments: