June 9, 2009

What About the Animals?

Michael Anissimov is guest blogging this month.

In considering a possible transhumanist future where cybernetic implants and other enhancements must be designed for the use of billions of people, I worry about an associated slaughter -- that of all the animals that must be used as test subjects for the enhancements before they can be made to work. Considering that some modifications will surely involve replacing the limbs, organs, and just about every part of the body, and always be accompanied by the risk of immune rejection, it seems heartless to subject millions of test animals to excruciating death by torture.

This aspect of technological progress is almost never discussed by transhumanists, yet it is so important.

The situation gets even worse with the application of robotics. To meet the increased demand for the design and testing of implantable devices, what if vivariums (animal testing facilities) are greatly expanded and automated? That could make them even worse than they already are -- tiny sterile cages in overlit rooms with bleach-white walls. Today, just as many "environmentally conscious" people happily (but at comfortable removal) subject intelligent animals like pigs to inhumane treatment in the world's factory farms, "nice people" in the future will have no compunctions to condemning millions of animals to death by torture if it will help the next cybernetic implant get designed. Why?

In advocating for transhumanism, is one in fact also inadvertently advocating for the mass mutilation of innocent and defenseless animals, who belong out in the field, not in the laboratory torture chamber, where they never see the light of day?

To a certain degree, yes.

Is there another way? Thankfully so. In discussing this issue with George, he pointed me to a Times Online article titled, "Animal experiments could end in a generation". This is some of the best news I have ever heard. My father, who works at Genentech, tells me all about how vivariums for major biotech companies are often in out-of-the-way neighborhoods with a complete absence of signs identifying the owner or purpose. If what they are doing is ethical, then why do they have to hide it so conspicuously? From the Times article:

The use of animal experiments could be replaced by research on “virtual human beings” and tests on banks of living cells within a generation, scientists say.

Computer modelling and advances in cell biology will allow researchers to assess new drugs far more precisely and without the involvement of animals. One innovation is the development of “micro-lungs” — lung cells extracted from transplant tissue, grown in a laboratory culture and then tested with drops of toxicants such as cosmetics to assess the response.

Can you imagine that, for many decades, the standard practice has been to administer toxicants directly to the lungs of test animals such as rabbits and rats? Although these animals may be dumber than humans, they clearly can feel pain, and much of the physiology in the brains of rabbits and rats is similar to human brains. It seems extremely likely to me that they have conscious experiences. We will have an opportunity to learn more about this when we can create brains at will and combine primitive brains with more advanced knowledge sets or intelligent agents that can reflect on the details of their mental experience.

Michael's blog: Accelerating Future.


Anonymous said...

Speaking of animals, this is by far the most extreme experiment ive seen to date.

Robot with a rat brain

I don't believe virtualization of human experimentation would eliminate animal experimentation all together. Not all experimentation is conducted for human use.

While this article did not mention the varying types of animal experimentation we still face the harsh ethical reality that comes with animal lifting.

As radical as the transition from human to posthuman maybe, we have to radically alter/change our animal rights to incorporate the increased technological means of man.

puppy power!

Unknown said...

"If what they are doing is ethical, then why do they have to hide it so conspicuously?"

The experiments might be ethical or not, but plenty of ethical people have to hide, when they are subject to attack. Why were gay clubs in the US hidden before 1970? Why are synagogues in Turkey made as inconspicuous as possible?

Anonymous said...

it seems heartless to subject millions of test animals to excruciating death by torture.

Research animals are not tortured, and rarely experience "excruciating" pain in the United States. Pain is minimized and must be scientifically justified. Usually it amounts to standard surgical techniques (with anesthesia). Humans and their pets routinely experience the same kinds of pain. The moral tragedy of animals in research is vastly overstated.

Anonymous said...

Also, standard euthanasia techniques are fast and produce much less suffering than the typical ways that animals die in the wild.

Romulus said...

"It seems extremely likely to me that they have conscious experiences."

They almost certainly do. Do I have any qualms over vivisection/animal testing? Almost certainly not; it is a necessary evil.

Go Democrats said...

Sorry, I value the live of my human friends who would have died without the development of necessary drugs through experimentation on animals that develop the same diseases, more than I value the lives of however many dogs, rabbits, pigs or goats who had to die to get those drugs made.

You can read about the importance of animal testing here:

Nato said...

I have a related ethical question. Given my expectation that we will build true human-type artificial intelligences in the next 2-4 decades, what are we to do with the inevitable mistakes we'll make? Evolution produces many, many creatures that live short, horrible lives for every one with favorable mutations, and I expect that humans attempting the same engineering task will do the same. How are we to treat entities - people, arguably - with all manner of developmental disabilities, emotional problems and so on? Will we regard them as experimental failures and terminate them? If we decide they have full rights a biological human would have in the same circumstances (as would be my inclination) then who is responsible for their care throughout their arbitrarily-long lifespans?

Another related issue: If rogue (or not so rogue) states start making intellectually-crippled robotic warriors and workers, are we morally obliged to preserve them? Will there be some cutoff point below which we'll consider entities to be machines rather than disabled people?

Pablo said...

bigmknows and Dominic, if things are not nearly as bad as Michael suggests and research on non-human animals is justified, why don't you just advocate that these experiments are conducted on human beings? After all, people are the best "animal models" we have.

Go Democrats, you told us what you value, but you gave no justification for this value judgment. Nazi doctors valued the lives of their nazi friends more than those of the jews, gypsies or homosexuals on whom they experimented. Yet that doesn't justify these experiments.

Romulus said...

"why don't you just advocate that these experiments are conducted on human beings?"

@Pablo: I'm not against that at all; it just doesn't fly very well with everyone else. So, alas, we just have to make do with animals.

Go Democrats said...

How utterly ridiculous for any professedly intelligent person to link the long history of medical advance through work with animals to the torture of Jews under the Nazi regime. I'm shocked to see that kind of thing on a transhumanist site since it is usually an accusation one sees coming from so-called bioluddites.

I value humans for their essential humanity. I realize this is incommensurable with some other peoples value systems, such as those animal rights activists who have killed lab workers to save monkeys. Nonetheless, I am not required to justify to you my belief that human life is worthy of advancement and protection.

George said...

@GoDemocrats: I found nothing unreasonable with Pablo's comparison; a number of transhumanists have made similar claims. You are simply in denial over the fact that experimentation is causing millions upon millions of severely degraded non-human animal experiences.

But what amazes *me* is that some of my readers still talk about some kind of ethereal 'human essence' and refuse to grok the concept of non-anthropocentric personhood and the requisite extension of moral consideration outside the human sphere. Without this acknowledgment transhumanism doesn't have a leg to stand up on.

Athena Andreadis said...

Research animals are indeed treated as well as possible. The protocols for animal use, are long, detailed, must be pre-approved by a mixed committee and are quarterly reviewed. However, it's true that the animals do get used and killed, and this becomes an increasingly uncomfortable fact as we get closer to primates. On the third hand, lives in the wild are not long or pain-free either.

There's another issue that I touched upon on my essay Dreamers of a Better Future, Unite! Although many techniques and therapies have been tested and developed in animals, humans are unique enough that eventually we will have to face the huge dilemma of experimenting on humans. A prominent example of this is that we can easily induce and cure cancer in mice. Not so in humans.

We've experimented on humans, and not only in Nazi concentration camps. We've done it in field surgery during war, on gametes and embryos, with most drugs -- even cousin intermarriages. But this will never become easy although, unlike animals, humans can at least give quasi-informed consent.

Go Democrats said...

George, your use of "grok" seems to indicate that you think it is self-evident that, say, apes or dolphins are "persons." They are neither natural nor legal persons, and if you would like to argue that they are moral persons that's hardly self-evident.

Nebris said...

We have thousands of condemned killers and rapists sitting in our prisons. Experiment upon them. They're closer than non-humans to the end users anyway and it would be a 'repayment of social debt.'

Nato said...

@Nebris Though I think there are entities inhabiting human bodies that are not morally human, I think this is a rare case of damaged neurology. Experiences can make monsters of otherwise ordinary people, but experiences and action can also allow them to reclaim their humanity. The true antisocial isn't like that, nor is the irretrievably catatonic, but under the vast majority of circumstances we can't demote people from humanity for good, which is what non-consensual medical experimentation would require.

James Evans said...

@Go Democrats, I'm sorry but I agree with George. Not being a "legal person" is just an artifact of anthropocentric laws.

Slaves weren't considered legal persons during slavery either. Just because the law says something doesn't make it true.

midnightsun said...

Whether one considers humans to be on a special plateau above all other living beings or not, and regardless of whether one thinks experimentation should be done to save human lives, there are many, many experiments done that have no life-saving aspect at all and are extremely cruel. I once saw a picture of chimps crunched up inside plastic tubes forced to smoke cigarettes at all times. We already have plenty of human guinea pigs willing to smoke without having to force chimps to smoke to learn its effects, but that nevertheless was considered a "legitimate" animal test done in a reputable university's lab. To me it's reprehensible. There is a lot of unnecessary animal testing out there that is NOT done for the purpose of saving human lives, but instead for perpetuating a lab's grant money and/or personal glory of the researcher or whatever other reason-- but not to save human lives.

Re: "Research animals are not tortured, and rarely experience 'excruciating' pain in the United States. Pain is minimized and must be scientifically justified."

"I'm shocked to see that kind of thing on a transhumanist site since it is usually an accusation one sees coming from so-called bioluddites."

That is my sentiment exactly about some of the arguments coming from transhumanists on here in the area of animal rights.

Do you believe in the basic tenets of science? Do you believe in evolution? Do you believe the latest research coming out of top universities in the world which shows that many animals have the ability to think, feel and are smarter than human toddlers? If you do, then what is the basis of your argument other than the sentiment that humans are somehow magically different from every other creature on earth?

Daniel Demski said...

Nobody has any criticism of the idea of
doing drug testing on virtual humans??

They're humans too! Their pain is just as real. I'm imagining this as a horrible dystopia in which humans are created and destroyed without any rights.

(Sorry about commenting so after-the-fact.)