November 14, 2006

Uplift imperialism?

One of the cases I make in my animal uplift paper, "All Together Now," is that biological uplift is related to the phenomenon of cultural uplift. I use the example of the colonization of the Americas to show how technologically disparate cultures have fared during these types of interactions. I basically argue that the resultant benefits of technological and social advancements have far outweighed the negative aspects of culture clashes.

A similar point was recently made by Joel Waldfogel in his Slate article, "Master of the Island: Which country is the best colonizer?" In particular, Waldfogel describes the work of James Feyrer and Bruce Sacerdote of Dartmouth College who consider the length of European colonization on the current standard of living of a group of 80 tiny and isolated islands. They essentially ask: Are the islands that experienced European colonization for a longer period of time richer today?

The answer is yes. Their key findings are that,
the longer one of the islands spent as a colony, the higher its present-day living standards and the lower its infant mortality rate. Each additional century of European colonization is associated with a 40 percent boost in income today and a reduction in infant mortality of 2.6 deaths per 1,000 births.
Reasons for the improvements, say the researchers, include trade, education, and democratic government. They also concluded that exposure to European colonizers benefits living standards for reasons apart from these advantages. My own feelings as to what may account for this are the synergistic effects of cross-cultural transmission. It's well known, for example, that the Iroquois Great Law of Peace was a direct influence on the make up of the U.S. constitution. The cross-pollination of ideas is often a good thing.

Looking ahead to the future, and in considering the welfare of nonhuman persons, we will likely witness the transmission of both memes and genes to animals. Human societies will apply uplift biotechnologies for humanitarian purposes and help nonhuman animals live safer, healthier and more dignified lives.

This proposed call to action has been criticized as being a form of imperialism (although I'm somewhat partial to the notion that this is a type of Fabian imperialism). But as history has shown, it is arguable that 'imperialism,' aside from its frequent use as a pejorative, can be a good thing and a driver for progressive change.

These issues are already pertinent today. Take the recent issue of the Ebola virus spreading to the Congo's gorillas. The virus is being transmitted to this already endangered species by bats. It's been proposed that the gorillas should be vaccinated against Ebola -- an intervention that would most certainly qualify as biological uplift (an immunity to a virus is a biological enhancement). This is just one small example of what is possible.

Imperialism or mercy? At what point do humanitarian efforts cross into the murky waters of imperialism? And if it's imperialism, for what possible gain?

[As an aside, I'm not quite sure this qualifies as uplift, but a male panda in China is being shown sexual instructional videos (i.e. "panda porn") to encourage him to get it on with the Mrs.]


Martin Striz said...

The question is, how do you apply uplift technology? Which animal minds are worthy of uplift? Should every ant be endowed with superhuman intelligence?

The pantheon of life on earth is a virtual continuum through the levels of consciousness. Consider the following list: human, chimp, gorilla, macaque, dolphin, parrot, pig, dog, cat, rat, mouse, snake, salamander, salmon, ant, earthworm, nematode. Where do you draw the line?

And if you uplift them, what do you uplift them to? Do you converge all animal minds to something similar to humans, or posthumans? As I've said before on this issue, do you uplift a cat so that it is smart enough to build a mouse trap, or do you rewrite its mind so that it no longer enjoys killing mice?

George said...

The how question is largely dependent on the nature of future enhancement technologies. Neural grafting comes to mind, as well as somatic and germline genetic modifications. Cybernetics may also play a role.

As for who, that's an excellent question and likely the focus of my next paper on the subject. My current feeling is all 'higher' mammals in captivity immediately qualify, including the great apes, elephants, and cetaceans. These species run the risk of living in captivity in perpetuity, a rather disheartening idea. Similarly, those animals who are endangered and/or living in disappearing habitats also qualify. That's all I'm really comfortable with right now until I'm better able to formulate this argument.

Jose said...

Considering the level of experimentation we conduct with primates I suspect it won't be a consensus decision. When new technology emerges with the potential someone, somewhere will almost definitely apply it in experimental fashion to a test subject.

George you make an interesting point about the potential benign effect of imperialism. Spain almost definitely benefited from the presence of the Romans and the Moors although the intentions of those groups in invading and occupying the Iberian peninsula wasn't necessarily charitable.

Still it seems like a very shakey justification. It's easy to come to the conclusion that such behaviour is beneficial when you are the one defining what is and isn't beneficial.

But that distinction may be moot. Assuming that uplift can be achieved it will be attempted. And the results of that attempt will carry enormous weight in decisions with respect to how to proceed.