July 25, 2011

Using culture to enhance

Biological uplift is one of two major ways in which a human or animal can be endowed with superior or alternative ways of physical or psychological functioning. Memetic uplift, or cultural uplift, is distinguished from biological uplift in that it typically involves members of the same species and does not require any intrinsic biological alteration to the organism. While profound biological uplift is still set to happen at some point in the future, cultural transmission and memetic uplift have already been an indelible part of human history. And for some non-human animals living today it's proving to play an important part in their development as well.

Memetic uplift can be construed as a soft form of uplift. Memes are by their very nature rather ethereal cultural artifacts, whereas biological uplift entails actual physical and cognitive transformation. That’s not to suggest that inter-generational non-genetic transfer of information is subtle. Society and culture have a significant impact on the makeup of an individual. That said, human psychology is powered by genetic predispositions that function as proclivity engines, endowing persons with their unique personalities, tendencies and latent abilities.

Proclivities do not exist in a vacuum, of course, and that is why the environment continues to play an integral role in the development of the entire phenotype. How persons are socialized and which memes they are exposed to determines to a large part who and what individuals are as sentient, decision-making agents. Consequently, people are constrained and moulded in a non-trivial way by their culture-space. Humans have moved beyond their culturally and phenotypically primitive Paleolithic forms owing to the influence of an advanced culturally extended phenotype and the subsequent rise of exosomatic minds and bodies.

An example of memetic uplift

One of the most striking examples of memetic uplift was the colonization of the Americas by the Europeans. From a macrohistorical perspective, the clash of European and indigenous American civilizations was one between a post-feudal monarchist society and a Stone Age culture. The wide technological and cultural gap separating the two societies gave the Europeans a considerable edge in their ability to successfully wage an invasion that resulted in the embedding of their political, economic, and religious institutions on the continent. The Europeans were also proactive about “civilizing” aboriginal peoples – in some cases forcing them to attend English schools or converting them to Christianity. Today, very few aboriginals, if any, are able to maintain a lifestyle that even modestly resembles life in pre-colonial times.

There is a risk, however, of overstating this episode as an example of cultural invasion or uplift. It was a slow and protracted process of cultural transference – one in which memetic transmission was bi-directional (albeit somewhat lopsidedly). Cultural extinction of native life did not occur, but instead suffered significant erosion. Further, the colonization of the Americas resulted in mutation and the emergence of an entirely new set of cultures.

This period was traumatic in a real sense and it is often considered one of the more regrettable periods of human history. Yet the episode raises a number of issues and the opportunity for some thought experiments. Was it inevitable? If not, how is it possible that history could have been replayed any differently? Could it have been done with greater sensitivity and concern for the native way of life? Would our society today do a better job? Assuming a hands-off policy could have been exercised with regards to the intermingling of civilizations, would it have been ethical to allow the aboriginals to continue living a Stone Age life? Assuming this is truly an example of cultural uplift, in which ways was it a success and in which a failure?

These are difficult questions with complex answers. However, as history has shown, the intermingling and assimilation of disparate cultures was and is an indelible part of the human condition. Information swapping is a developmental reality that has been largely unavoidable. Such is the nature of data accumulation, organization and transmission at the hands of intelligence. The question at the dawn of the twenty-first century is how genetic information will be organized and transmitted—and to whom.

Conceptions of progress and the rise of cultural relativism

The European colonization of the Americas, along with other similar episodes, is an extremely sensitive area of debate, often leading to discussions that skirt the fringes of acceptability in terms of political correctness. Part of the problem is the rise of cultural relativism, particularly as it as it pertains to the assessment of ancient life and how it compares to modernity.

Objective assessment is often difficult, in part the result of the romantic perceptions that many people carry of pre-civilizational existence and the cynical take some have in regards to modern life. Factors contributing to this sentiment include the disruptive nature of technological advance on individuals and cultures, the failed totalitarian experiments of the twentieth century, the two catastrophic world wars, the rise of apocalyptic threats, and the calamitous effects of modern society on the environment.

Driving this negative view of modern society even further is the prevailing pseudohistorical romanticization of primitive life evident in popular culture and perpetuated by a number of intellectuals. What the biblical “Garden of Eden” and Rousseauian “noble savage” myths often fail to take into account, however, is how nasty, brutish and short life used to be. A strong case can be made that social and technological progress happens for a reason, namely the steady improvement of conditions and the pursuit of a more dignified and fulfilling life for individuals. Humanity is a self-domesticating species.

Given where humanity finds itself today—particularly in regards to the benefits of technologies and institutions that are all too often taken for granted—very few people would voluntarily choose to go back to a Stone Age way of life. The memetic endowments of human civilization not only allow people to actualize and express themselves better, but also protect individuals from the dangers of nature, arbitrariness, and undue suffering in general.

A common criticism levied at this line of reasoning is that it is coming from the perspective of “home-field advantage.” Given the often deplorable experience of aboriginal people who have been integrated into modern society, it is often assumed that natives would be happier living a tribal existence and if given the opportunity would voluntarily return to such a life. Further, some argue that there is no correlation between technological development and increasing levels of happiness.

Recent events involving Columbia’s isolated nomadic Nukak Maku tribe contradict these assumptions. In May of 2006, a group of nearly 80 Nukak left the jungle and asked to “join the White Family.” This event offered an unprecedented opportunity to determine the state of mind of those wishing to leave Stone Age life. It is one thing to ask an integrated aboriginal whether or not he wishes to return to tribal life when he has never lived such a life, and quite another thing to ask an aboriginal who has actually been there.

When asked if they were sad to leave the jungle a Nukak named Pia-pe laughed at the suggestion and proclaimed that they “could not be happier.” The Nukak, who were used to long marches in search of food, were amazed at the open availability of foodstuffs. When asked what they liked the most, they responded with a lengthy list of items that included pots, skillets, matches, soap, pants, shoes, caps, rice, sugar, oil, flour, eggs and onions. One young Nukak mother noted, “When you walk in the jungle your feet hurt a lot.” The group is learning to plant crops and intend on sending their children to local schools.

At first glance the story of the Nukaks appears to be a success, but only time will tell. It appears that the local population has been very accommodating to the newcomers. This is a far cry from the events that characterized the broader integration of Native Americans—a development that was marred by the dominating and bellicose nature of the invaders and their failure to bring aboriginals into the larger social circle. This is a struggle that persists to this very day, and in this sense it is still a work in progress.

That said, virtually all episodes in which primitive cultures are influenced by more advanced ones represent precursors to the biological uplift of highly sapient nonhuman species.

Cultural uplift of nonhuman animals

Culture, as many zoologists can attest, is hardly the exclusive domain of humans. Animals such as the great apes and dolphins have the ability not just for language skills, but for being able to pass memes down from generation to generation. This raises an interesting question: Given that some nonhuman animals are capable of engaging in cultural activities, and given that we value certain attributes about human culture, is it both possible and desirable to share our culture with other species?

The Great Ape Trust in Iowa is engaging in an activity that is exploring this very issue. In their experiment, bonobos, which are part of the great ape family that includes chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans, have been given their own house in which to live and dwell. In 2005, organizers placed eight bonobos in a multi-million dollar facility in what is hoped will be a successful long term and multi-generational experiment.

The house is equipped with 18 rooms that include a kitchen in which to prepare meals and vending machines that dispense snacks. There are flushing lavatories, an indoor waterfall and walls for climbing. When it comes time to eat, the apes help their human handlers prepare meals in a compound kitchen. The bonobos can monitor the front door with a camera and decide for themselves who can come in—although they are known for welcoming visitors and often taking newcomers by the hand to show them around the complex.

In addition to the rudiments of daily domestic life, the bonobos have access to art supplies, musical instruments and entertainment, including television. Researchers hope that with the right stimulation the bonobos, who already understand a limited human vocabulary, will develop skills that include language, art and music. If successful, the experiment would show that many activities previously thought of as uniquely human are not innate to Homo sapiens.

One of the bonobos, a 25-year-old, can accurately answer questions equivalent to that of a three-year-old human and is able to make up sentences using several lexigram words. In addition, because chimps' vocal tracts make it impossible for them to replicate human speech, the bonobos communicate by using touch-sensitive computer screens with over 250 symbols. Like their human handlers, the apes are using their newfound tools to overcome their biological limitations.

Indeed, over the course of the experiment the lines between cultural and biological uplift are already starting to blur. The bonobos have even been given a type of cybernetic augmentation in the form of a voice synthesizer to vocalize their desires.

Without more significant biological augmentation, however, the Great Ape Trust experiment has its limitations. Thomas Suddendorf, an experimental psychologist from Queensland, is skeptical about the researchers’ hopes that the apes will learn to communicate more complex notions. He contends that bonobo psychology is intractably limited, citing their inability to consider abstract concepts such as past or future, their inability to grasp syntax, and the fact that they have yet to display active teaching behaviours.

Nevertheless, the Great Ape Trust model is an excellent starting block for not just cultural uplift, but for biological uplift as well. This endeavor is not meant to assimilate or “humanize” nonhuman species, but instead efforts that work to advance apes and their proto-culture. In this way, bonobos and other potentially uplifted nonhumans will ideally become autonomous decision making agents within a larger inter-species society. As the organizers of the Trust themselves state, the apes’ intelligence, communication, social interactions and cultural expression must be advanced respectfully, honorably and openly.

In looking at the colonization of the Americas, and considering ongoing trends in economic, political and cultural globalization, it appears that more advanced civilizations influence, either actively or passively, other less developed societies to come along for the ride. As the human moral and legal purview expands to include nonhuman persons, it is not too extreme to suggest that humanity will increasingly come to be concerned with the welfare of highly sapient animals. Uplift need not be considered unjust or coercive; the impetus that drives human civilization is one of progress and refinement. Consequently, it may not only be a good thing to uplift nonhuman animals, it may also be within the realm of human obligations.


nazgulnarsil said...

One of the examples I return to a lot in the vein of memetic bootstrapping is jewish culture and their successful transmission of high education as a status symbol. Mormons are another interesting example as groups with much higher rates of financial success relative to the norm.

ZarPaulus said...

Careful, you don't want to sound too much like a social darwinist.

David Brin said...

Good stuff George!

david brin