Science & Technology

Humanizing Animals

Is it wrong to make intelligent animal slaves?


Combining animal and human genes provokes unease among some philosophers, theologians, and ordinary citizens. Currently, scientists want to inject the nuclei of human cells into animal eggs-generally from cows and rabbits–that have been stripped of their nuclei to create cell hybrids, or cybrids. Human eggs are hard to come by and expensive whereas animal eggs are plentiful and cheap. The aim is to produce embryonic stem cells for research.

No one knows if such cybrid embryos might grow into human babies if implanted in an appropriate womb. Would such cybrid babies suffer some physical or mental problems as a result of their animal genetic heritage? That heritage would basically be the energy producing mitochondria derived from the cytoplasm of the animal cells into which the human nuclei were inserted. Since cows and rabbits live much shorter lives than do humans it might be that any cybrid humans with cow or rabbit mitochondria would not live as long as normal humans. In addition, the operation of animal mitochondria in cybrids might mimic some mutational mitochondrial diseases that already afflict people. These real risks of creating physically and mentally diminished human beings mean that it would be immoral to grow human-animal cybrids into full-term babies.

But let's flip the question-instead of diminishing humans, what about uplifting animals by boosting their intelligence and physical dexterity? Uplifting animals to human-like sapience has been explored by many speculative writers. For example, in H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), humanized animals are commanded to follow Moreau's law: "Not to go on all-fours; Not to suck up Drink; Not to eat Fish or Flesh; Not to claw the Bark of Trees; Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not Men?" But they are not Men and they eventually revert to their beast natures and destroy their hubristic creator. Even worse is Pierre Boulle's novel, The Planet of the Apes (1963), in which uplifted apes are now the masters of animal-like degenerate humans. On the other hand, in Cordwainer Smith's Norstrilia (1975), the underpeople, humanlike beings created from animals, struggle for their rights and are morally superior in many respects to their human masters.

The most popular novels of the genre are David Brin's The Uplift Saga and The Uplift Trilogy. In Brin's universe, one sapient species after another throughout the galaxies uses genetic engineering to uplift non-sapient species to self-aware intelligence. In Brin's books, humanity uplifts dolphins and chimps and we three earthly species go cheerfully caroming around the universe together.

Some technoprogressive thinkers such as editor-in-chief of George Dvorsky argue that we have a moral obligation to uplift other species to sapiency. "It would be negligent of us to leave animals behind to fend for themselves in the state of nature," declared Dvorsky. He foresees mostly great good coming out of any such project. On the other hand, the prospect of uplift inspires dread in bioconservatives like Francis Fukuyama who worries that biotechnologists will create slave chimpanzees with the intelligence of a ten-year old boy.

Setting aside the fact that no one has any idea of how to actually uplift, that is, to dramatically boost the intelligence of animals, would it be moral to do it? How would a dumb animal give its consent to being uplifted? Since no human being gives his or her consent to being born with whatever level of intelligence or health he or she has, why should prior consent be required for uplifting animals? Dvorsky actually thinks that it is more moral to uplift already born animals so that we can ask them before-and-after questions. Perhaps they would recall their pre-sapient state and tell us if it were preferable to the anxieties of self-awareness. But what if uplifted chimps and dolphins told us that self-aware intelligent language using is not all that it's cracked up to be and that they'd rather go back to their state of natural innocence?

Also, would uplifted animals retain something of their essential chimpanzee or dolphin natures? This could be problematic. For example, male chimpanzees share the human male proclivity for violence. And dolphins indulge in gang rape and kill for fun. It is possible that some intellectually-enhanced chimps and dolphins could be psychopathic murderers. In other words, uplifted animals might not be morally any better, and maybe even worse, than human beings. Would-be uplifters might suffer the fate of Dr. Moreau.

Fukuyama's concerns about subhuman slaves cannot be dismissed. Uplift advocate Dvorsky agrees: "Animals may also be engineered to have specialized physical or cognitive characteristics while lacking certain neurological faculties. Theoretically, such creatures could be designed for specific tasks, such as manual labour, dangerous work, or as sex trade workers–and at the same time be oblivious to the demeaning or hazardous nature of their work. For all intents and purposes these would be happy slaves."

So would it be wrong to uplift animals and make them happy slaves? One could imagine uplifted animals designed to receive an addictive jolt of pleasure inducing dopamine every time they successfully carry out a human command. Something like that already happens when a dog gets patted on its head by its owner for fetching a ball. Dvorsky denounces the prospect of uplifted happy slaves as "a repugnant possibility and an affront to humanitarian values."

Now imagine human beings who have been genetically engineered with a dopamine obedience circuit. It's pretty clear that we would consider such engineered people as "diminished" because their capacity for self-government would have been deliberately limited. We generally regard people as acting freely when they act on their own intentions and for their own reasons without coercion. In this case, the biotechnically juiced-up dopamine circuit functions as a kind of gentle coercion. But wait, aren't we all already in thrall to our un-tampered with dopamine reward circuits?

Creating happy uplifted animal slaves faces two chief moral objections. First, I would not want to be a happy slave. If I wouldn't want to be one then I assume no one else, including uplifted animals, would want to be. Second, a society dependent on happy slaves would be morally corrosive.

So why wouldn't I want to be a happy slave-after all I would be, by definition, happy. I reject happy servitude because I don't want limitations placed on my capacities and my aspirations. But of course, my genes and environment have already limited my intellectual and physical capacities and aspirations. However, living as a human discontented with my shortcomings, I know that it is "Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav'n." When sufficient progress has been made later this century, I hope to have the power of choosing how to use new technologies to enhance my capacities and even at the risk of overwhelming and destroying my own identity.

On the point of moral corrosion, consider the plot of The Planet of the Apes. What has happened is that the humans uplifted the apes and became so dependent upon their simian servants that their intellects decayed. There are, of course, lots of confounding factors, but history features no economically and technologically robust slave-holding civilizations. In any case, I suspect humanity will become deeply integrated with our increasingly powerful computational technologies so that happy animal slaves will be basically useless anyway.

Some have argued that self-aware intelligence is an ecological niche that can only be inhabited by one species. If two proto-intelligent species arise at the same time, one eventually out-competes and causes the extinction of the other. This may have happened to our Neanderthal cousins. Would uplifting animals spark a dangerous evolutionary competition for the occupation of the intelligence niche?

A rich speculative literature makes it clear that there a plenty of ways in which uplift technologies could be misused or go awry, but there is no bright moral line forbidding the uplift of animals to human-level intelligence. Successfully uplifted animals would have to be treated with the same moral respect that we owe to human persons.

Ronald Bailey
reason's science correspondent. His most recent book, Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution, is available from Prometheus Books.