Tag Archives: sentience

Rodent dilemmas and simian doubts

These just in from the Animal Psychology Department; first up, rats are surprisingly good at the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma [via BoingBoing]:

It may not be entirely surprising that rats cooperated in the Prisoner’s Dilemma.  After all, animals often cooperate in nature to altruistically serve the group, whether that means hunting in packs to get more meat, or a surrogate mother animal adopting an abandoned baby to boost the pack’s numbers.  Still, there’s no direct evidence that shows rats grasp the concept of direct reciprocity.  Given that the rats in this study changed their strategy based on the game their opponent was playing, and cooperation rates were only high when the rats played against a tit-for-tat opponent, the authors showed, perhaps for the first time, that rats directly reciprocate. But an even more surprising finding was how well the rats played the game.  They plotted and schemed.  They manipulated their opponents by taking calculated strategic risks for the high payout reward. In essence, these rodents challenged our perception of animal intelligence and proved that they, too, can master both the game, and the psychological component of competition.

Furthermore, apes have been discovered to have the capacity to doubt their own decisions [via George Dvorsky].

Josep Call […] put food in one of two opaque plastic pipes and had watching bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans pick the one with the food. If they were made to wait, the apes sometimes forgot where the food was, but by and large they did well on the task.

To test if the apes doubted their own decisions, Call gave them the option to peek into the end of the pipes before they chose one. He found that the apes were more likely to check the pipes if they had to wait before picking one. Call says this suggests that the apes had begun to doubt their memory.

That consensus definition of “human” is starting to look a lot less exclusive than it used to, no?

Eradicate cruelty: “reprogram” predators

hungry lionI’m sure that almost everyone would rather live in a world that featured less cruelty and pain for living creatures… but what if it were possible to eradicate them completely? Via Accelerating Future comes a provocative essay by one David Pearce, who suggests that not only would it be possible for us to engineer a biosphere without suffering, but that it is our moral duty to do so. Global veganism in the wake of readily available vat-grown meat would be merely the start of the project; next would be the engineered extinction of all obligate predator species. [image by Tambako the Jaguar]

Even the hypothetical world-wide adoption of a cruelty-free diet leaves one immense source of suffering untouched. Here we shall explore one of the thorniest issues: the future of what biologists call obligate predators. For the abolitionist project seems inconsistent with one of our basic contemporary values. The need for species conservation is so axiomatic that an explicitly normative scientific sub-discipline, conservation biology, exists to promote it. In the modern era, the extinction of a species is usually accounted a tragedy, especially if that species is a prominent vertebrate rather than an obscure beetle. Yet if we seriously want a world without suffering, how many existing Darwinian lifeforms can be conserved in their current guise? What should be the ultimate fate of iconic species like the large carnivores? True, only a minority of the Earth’s species are carnivorous predators: the fundamental laws of thermodynamics entail that whenever there is an “exchange of energy” between one trophic level and another, there is a significant loss. The majority of the planet’s 50,000 or so vertebrate species are vegetarian. But among the minority of carnivorous species are some of the best known creatures on the planet. Should these serial killers be permitted to prey on other sentient beings indefinitely?

There’s a whole raft of obvious objections to the idea, of course, but Pearce has covered pretty much all of them with the logic of our obligation to compassionate stewardship of our biosphere. I’m not even close to agreeing with him – frankly, the whole thing seems no less hubristic to me than believing that we have a moral right to impose cruelty by dint of our top-most position on the evolutionary chain, though (as Pearce points out) that’s representative of a fundamental bias toward the biological status quo. But it’s a fascinating and challenging read nonetheless… not to mention a spark for dozens of science fictional story ideas.

Redefining personhood

contemplative gorillaTranshumanist thinker George Dvorsky is contemplating the nature of personhood – how do we decide whether a creature is a person, and what rights and considerations should that status confer upon said creature?

A big question I would like to answer is, should personhood status be described as a spectrum or as a definitive, fixed state. In other words, are dolphins and bonobos as much persons as a genetically modified and cyborgized transhuman? And is such a distinction even necessary? Should persons, regardless of where they are situated in the personhood spectrum, all have the same moral and legal considerations? More philosophically, given the space of all possible minds, how can we begin to identify the space of all possible persons within that gigantic spectrum?

Now, part of Dvorsky’s thrust here is that he’s concerned we may deny personhood to sentient machines; it’s an interesting argument, but predicated on the belief that sentient machines are not just a possibility but an inevitability, and as such is easy to brush away if you’re a strong-AI sceptic.[image by jimbowen0306]

But he also links to a paper by Linda Macdonald Glenn which discusses genetic chimeras – an equally sf-nal idea that is pretty much on the doorstep of reality as we speak. Say someone has 5% pig DNA – are they then only 95% human? What social strictures might we find ourselves justifying on that basis? If that sounds unlikely, think how easily we use race or nationality as justification for different legal status; sadly, we’re far too practiced at labelling “the other” to simply skip over the question of someone’s genetic make-up.

Dvorsky is also passionate supporter of animal rights, and extends the argument in that direction, too; if sentience is a movable feast of sorts, where do we draw the line? I believe I’d be correct in interpreting Dvorsky as saying that there isn’t really any line at all between ourselves and any of the higher order animals, and that personhood is a continuum rather than a binary state. There’s a nobility to that position that I have great respect for, but I also feel it’s a case of putting the cart before the horse. I suspect that we’ll never learn to treat animals in fair and reasonable ways until we’ve reached a point where we can admit (and act on) the essential equality of all humankind – and, sadly, that day still seems to be a long way off.