Uplift ethics and transhuman hubris

There’s a little splash of uplift-related news around the place, thanks to the topic-initiating power of a new documentary film which you may well have already seen mentioned elsewhere: Project Nim tells the story of Nim Cimpsky, the subject of an experiment intended to disprove Chomsky’s assertion that language is unique to human. Here’s the trailer:

Here’s an interview with the film’s director, James Marsh, at The Guardian:

“The nature-versus-nurture debate clearly was part of the intellectual climate of that time and remains an interesting question – how much we are born a certain way, as a species and as individuals. In Nim’s case, he has a chimpanzee’s nature and that nature is an incredibly forceful part of his life. What [the scientists] try to do is inhibit his nature and you see the results in the story.

“I was intrigued because I hadn’t seen that in a film before, the idea of telling an animal’s life from cradle to grave using the same techniques as you would use for a human biography.”

Marsh admits that conveying Nim’s experiences was tough. “The overlap between the species [human and chimpanzee] does involve emotions. But at the same time I was very wary of those from the get-go. I felt that Nim’s life had been blighted by people projecting on to him human qualities and trying to make him something that he wasn’t.”

Meanwhile, George Dvorsky links to a piece about a report from the Academy of Medical Science that calls for new rules to govern research into “humanising animals”, though specifically a more invasive and biological fashion than Project Nim:

Professor Thomas Baldwin, a member of the Academy of Medical Sciences working group that produced the report, said the possibility of humanised apes should be taken seriously.

“The fear is that if you start putting very large numbers of human brain cells into the brains of primates suddenly you might transform the primate into something that has some of the capacities that we regard as distinctively human.. speech, or other ways of being able to manipulate or relate to us,” he told a news briefing in London.

“These possibilities that are at the moment largely explored in fiction we need to start thinking about now.”

Prof Baldwin, professor of philosophy at the University of York, recommended applying the “Great Ape Test”. If modified monkeys began to acquire abilities similar to those of chimpanzees, it was time to “hold off”.

“If it’s heading in that direction, red lights start flashing,” said Prof Baldwin. “You really do not want to go down that road.”

Dvorsky, a dyed-in-the-wool transhumanist, disagrees:

I’m just as concerned as anyone about the potential for abuse, particularly when animals are used in scientific experiments. But setting that aside, and assuming that cognitive enhancement could be done safely on non-human primates, there’s no reason why we should fear this. In fact, I take virtually the opposite stance to this report. I feel that humanity is obligated to uplift non-human animals as we simultaneously work to uplift ourselves (i.e. transhumanism).

Reading this report, I can’t help but feel that human egocentricity is driving the discussion. I sincerely believe that animal welfare is not the real issue here, but rather, ensuring human dominance on the planet.

Here we run into another reason why I’m a fellow-traveller and chronicler of transhumanism and not a card-carrier, because Dvorsky’s logic seems completely inverted to me. Is it not far more human-egocentric to view ourselves as the evolutionary pinnacle that all animals would aspire to achieve, were they but able to aspire? To make that decision on their behalf, on the basis of our own inescapably human-centric system of value-judgements?

Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves, why wouldn’t we wish to endow our primate cousins with the same cognitive gifts that we have?

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?

Because make no mistake, even were we able to endow chimpanzees with the same cognitive powers as ourselves, we would still find reasons not to enfranchise them fully. If you can look at the disparities in enfranchisement of different human races and classes and genders in this world that still persist to this day, despite the lip-service liberalism of the privileged Western world to the contrary, and not see that life for uplifted apes would be a condition of slavery to science for science’s own sake (at the very best): a lifetime of being a bug in a glass jar, a curiosity and a joke and an object of pity… well, you can evidently look at the world very differently to how I can. In my world, that’s high-order hubris.

Dvorsky has another post which discusses more recent attempts at “cultural uplift”, which seems to be a more modern and ethically grounded update of Project Nim; while certainly more palatable than more directly biological interventions in animal cognition, I still feel there’s an arrogant flaw in assuming that human culture is superior (and hence obligatory) to an animal’s naturally evolved culture. Am I engaging in a sort of Noble Savage argument here, claiming that ape inferiority should be preserved in order that I can continue feeling superior to it? I don’t believe I am. You can only throw the Noble Savagery claim at me if you claim that there is already no value-difference between human culture and ape culture, and that apes are deserving of the same rights as man… at which point you not only concede the point I’m trying to make, but you also concede that you have no moral or cultural high-ground from which to decide that ape culture is inferior.

Apes are special, because they are so similar to us in so many ways; on this I think we can all agree. But to uplift them would not be an act of protecting and awarding that specialness; it would be, consciously or otherwise, an act of erasure, an attempt to equalise the specialness differential and make them just the same as us.

And that is human egocentricity in action – the same egocentricity whose trackmarks can be seen on the skin of the planet that gave rise to it, and whose roots are in a deep-seated envy and resentment of the innocence that is the true core of the difference between us and the great apes. It is that innocence that uplifting would erase; do you think an ape that thought like a human wouldn’t resent our theft of that innocence? Or would you keep them ignorant of the state they existed in before uplift? Immediately, inevitably, you create the conditions whereby you are obliged to treat these newly-minted man-apes in a less free condition than the one you have claimed to raise them up to.

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.

2 thoughts on “Uplift ethics and transhuman hubris”

  1. I have also responded to Dvorsky’s piece — which is actually one of a series of regular pieces on “animal uplift” emerging out of IEET, most of them prone to the same unpleasant parochialism. I couldn’t help but quote one of your more acerbic observations and report Dvorsky’s fit of pique in response to it.

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