July 26, 2011

Responding to Futurismic's rejection of animal enhancement

Paul Raven of Futurismic has taken me to task on my views of animal uplift. In response to my question, "Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves, why wouldn’t we wish to endow our primate cousins with the same cognitive gifts that we have?" Raven responds:
Because they are not us. We are related, certainly, this much is inescapable, but a chimpanzee is not a human being, and to insist that uplift is a moral duty is to enshrine the inferiority-to-us of the great apes, not to sanctify their uniqueness. This is the voice of assimilation, the voice of homogenisation, the voice of empire. It is the voice of colonialist arrogance, and a form of species fascism. If we have any moral duty toward our genetic cousins, it is to protect them from the ravages we have committed on the world they have always lived in balance with. Why raise them up to our hallowed state of consciousness if all they stand to inherit is a legacy of a broken planet and a political framework that legitimises the exploitation of those considered to carry a debt to society’s most powerful?
Raven goes on to object my comparison of cultural uplift with biological uplift:
To assume that we know what is good for an ape better than an ape itself is an act of spectacular arrogance, and no amount of dressing it up in noble colonial bullshit about civilising the natives will conceal that arrogance.

Furthermore, that said dressing-up can be done by people who frequently wring their hands over the ethical implications of the marginal possibility of sentient artificial intelligences getting upset about how they came to be made doesn’t go a long way toward defending the accusations of myopic technofetish, body-loathing and silicon-cultism that transhumanism’s more vocal detractors are fond of using.
There are a couple of things I want to make clear here.

First, when I talk about the "same cognitive gifts that we have," I am not necessarily suggesting that we humanize non-human animals—though I concede that some human characteristics, such as the capacity for speech and complex recursive language, are important augmentations. More accurately, I am discussing animal uplift in the context of the broader thrust that sees not just humans move away from the Darwinian paradigm, but the entire ecosystem itself. I realize that's not a small or subtle thing, but eventually our entire planet's biosphere will come under the auspices of intelligent oversight—what in some circles has been referred to as technogaianism. We are poised to systematically replace a number of autonomous environmental and evolutionary systems with new and improved ones that will see a dramatic reduction in global suffering and a much more vibrant planet. And quite obviously it'll also be part of our efforts to fix the damage we've done thus far to Earth. So, when I talk about enhancing animals, I'm talking about bringing them into the postbiological fold along with us. To just leave the animal kingdom alone to fend for itself seems plain wrong and repugnant to me.

And the critics can call it technofetishism or body loathing or by any other reactionary superlative. I call it common sense and intuitive thinking. It's also very likely the destiny of life on Earth.

Second, and related to the first point, I think many of my detractors must have a very different definition of imperialism than I do. What they see as imperialism (though I'm not exactly sure what they're suggesting humans are exploiting here) I see as compassion. I find it interesting how many critics of uplift call upon Western norms and taboos to make their case, while my ethics is almost exclusively informed by Eastern philosophies, namely Buddhism. I look at animal uplift in the same way I do any other compassionate act in which a human or non-human animal is pulled-up from deplorable conditions, whether it be extreme poverty, or having to survive alone in the jungle.

I'm going to issue a challenge to the opponents of animal uplift: Go back and live in the forest. I mean it. Reject all the technological gadgetry in your possession and all the institutions and specialists you've come to depend on. Throw away your phones, your shoes, your glasses and your watches. Denounce your education. As I'm sure I don't have to remind anybody, it's these things that have uplifted humanity from it's more primitive "natural" state. Humans haven't been truly human for thousands of years; we've been transhuman for quite some time now. If you reject animal uplift, then you must reject your very own transhuman condition.

Yeah, like that's going to happen. Pretty easy to dismiss uplift from the position of privilege, isn't it? Who's the real imperialist, here?


mpkirkland said...

I think (perhaps) you're setting up a false dichotomy. Can we not uplift the various proto-sapients and leave populations in their natural state?

Tsimigos said...

Animal uplifting causes a gag reflex action in anyone NOT of European ancestry. Despite the surface starry-eyed optimism; this was stuff we all have lived through before under different names: Manifest Destiny, spreading Christianity or Islam, Imperialism, slavery, various types of totalitarianism; all were non-consentual 'uplifting' projects' for the good of some or supposedly all. Perhaps the transhumanist project should be to deepen OUR awareness so that we can communicate with animals; or increase our EQs so that we can co-exist compassionately with them. The 'hard-drive' of transhumanism is still infected with memes of the need to dominate,
race & interspecies bigotry, and eugenic mastery plans. Changing ourselves behaviorally and uplifting our own compassion and EQs is what will prevent transhumanism from making the same old errors with new technology.