Biotechnology

Humanizing Animals

Is it wrong to make intelligent animal slaves?

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

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  1. I didn’t rtfa yet. But baring genetic human-animal hybrids, i’ve allways felt we should domesticate many more species than just dogs, cats, horses, cows, and sheep. Why don’t we just domesticate everything? We could breed some really cool animals in as little as 20 or 30 years.

  2. The ruskies domesticated foxes apparently. There was a Reason article on it. Would’ve been a rather cool pet.

  3. history features no economically and technologically robust slave-holding civilizations

    The Roman Empire?
    The Greeks?
    The Persians?

    Do I need to go on…

  4. Justa as long as they taste good…

  5. Yeah i heard about that. I imagine that domesticated product will eventually become a semi-common pet. So does anybody know why we don’t domesticate chimps? I mean selectively breed them for specific traits and fundamentally change the species. I would be much more comfortable with that than splicing human DNA into animal DNA.
    I would like to have my own huge domesticated Elk to ride through the forest like on Princess Minoke.

  6. I want my flying monkeys first! Catwomen sex slaves can wait. 😉

    I’ll go RTFA now.

  7. So does anybody know why we don’t domesticate chimps? I mean selectively breed them for specific traits and fundamentally change the species.

    Because they are fucking violent, and even if you think you’ve bred it out of them, if they go bad they can literally rip your appendages off. Dogs are far less dangerous than chimps, we’ve been breeding them for 10-50,000 years (?), and they still go bad sometimes.

  8. To save time, I’m just going to quote myself from a much earlier H&R post on a similar topic (slightly edited):

    Well, suppose someone obtained a tissue sample from, I dunno, Keira Knightly, made clones in the laboratory, but genetically manipulated those clones so they had the intelligence level, friendliness, loyalty, horniness and tendency to lick/mouth things of a Labrador retriever pup. And then sold the semi-human modified clones as sex slaves! That would be …

    (thinks about this for a few minutes)

    … that would be awful!

    Admittedly, this is probably quite a few years in the future. But give the Pope [and now, Ron Bailey] credit for thinking about this in advance, when we have some time to think about the proper ethical and policy approach, instead of waiting for the day when Keira Knightly sex slaves are dropped into our laps!

  9. So does anybody know why we don’t domesticate chimps?

    Well, let me tell you a little story involving time travel…

  10. If I recall correctly, Brin does divert into some philosophical territory regarding whether the chimps, dolphins, and gorillas (don’t forget Uplift War!) really want to have been uplifted, and there are times some of them regret it. However, any of us can “revert” to a non-sentient state if we feel like giving ourselves some serious brain damage, yet nobody does that. So I have a feeling that any creature that gains sentience will generally want to keep it.

    However, this does not excuse the way the Tandu treat me.

  11. Mankind’s biggest mistake was domesticating the dog instead of the monkey/ape. With thousands of years of selective breeding, we’d all have chimp and/or monkey butlers. Who knows, maybe even the phonics monkey.

  12. 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.

    STOPIT! Stop it. Stop it.
    Stop giving a flying flaming fuck or a rolling donut what Francis Fukuyama worries about. Only William Kristol has been more decisively shown to be a complete knee biter by history.

  13. What has happened is that the humans uplifted the apes and became so dependent upon their simian servants that their intellects decayed.

    Actually, one of the dark little secrets of sci-fi is that this plot, written by a Frenchman at the time he wrote it, is pretty obviously a commentary on the French colonial experience – and the apes are metaphors for Africans, and the corrupt humans are metaphorical whites. There is a deep racist subtext to the original novel.

  14. domesticate chimps?

    Sure, why not? It would make the NFL more honest and a hell of a lot more entertaining.

  15. However, this does not excuse the way the Tandu treat me.

    I’d guessed your handle came from that source.

    On the main point:

    If they are “intelligent” – whatever that means – they should not be property.

    I always considered it fortunate that we didn’t have a second land-based* intelligent species around, especially not one with an average IQ** in the 40 to 50 range. I think it would have led inevitably to enslavement of the less intelligent species, justified on the old “we’s got to take care of ’em, they’s just not bright enough” meme.

    *I’m not sure about dolphins and orca.

    **I know IQ testing is culturally biased, etc. I’m using “IQ” here to suggest a measure of the relative difference in average intelligence of sane, healthy individuals without a genetic defect or brain injury of two separate species.

  16. Mankind’s biggest mistake was domesticating the dog instead of the monkey/ape.

    Domesticating the dog wasn’t a concious decision. Nobody said let’s domesticate the dog today.

    Wolves were attracted to human settlement. Those wolves that were aggressive were killed or otherwise driven off. Those that were more docile were spared and allowed to have pups who shared the traits of their parents.

  17. dbcooper,

    The domesticated foxes lost all the cool features that made people want to have domesticated foxes.

  18. Why does the “uplifted” animal have to have anything more than a new skill set? Why does this also go with an increased ability to think?

  19. This is why dogs were domesticated:

    http://www.dogster.com/dogs/142533

  20. Seem like I seen adverts on the tube for the “trunk monkey”?

  21. You left out Capek’s War with the Newts.

  22. This technology could mean big bucks for the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

  23. Any discussion – however tangential – of epic knee biters has to include Ehrlich. Really, now.

  24. PETA would already argue that it is immoral to domesticate animals and use them for food/work/entertainment in any case. Most of us round here reject that argument, because animals aren’t little furry people. They are animals.

    But where exactly is the line? Things like chimps’ tea parties now seem exploitative, and many people find animal performances exploitative (eg, circus elephants) even without artificial uplift.

    Right now we’re relying pretty much on a squirm test: does this idea make you squirm? It’s probably immoral. Not very objective.

    And what about artificial intelligence? Iain Banks created a civilization where sentient machines and chemically-enhanced humans live together (the machine seem to tolerate the humans, mostly).

  25. I believe this was already explored fully in that episode of Futurama with the chimp with a top hat. The lesson: animals prefer to be sapient, but not too sapient. Like middle managers.

  26. There are real moral issues here. With the exception of the morons at PETA, I don’t think any of us have it all doped out in our own heads. It is certainly worth discussing. Unlike machine AI, gengineered non human intelligence is (SWAG alert!) only 50 years away.

  27. There was a show on Nat Geo a few weeks ago about a crazy russian scientist back in the 30’s(I think) that was attempting a human female, chimpanzee male hybrid. But the woman he had convinced to mate with the chimp died from TB before it took place.

    I think if chimps and other great apes could get it across to us, they would tell us not to go fuckin up their gene pool.

  28. The russian doc was trying to produce super soldiers, btw.

  29. If they are “intelligent” – whatever that means – they should not be property.

    This has always seemed obvious to me – I haven’t ever quite understood why some people feel that in possible future cases of actual genetically engineered intelligent species and artificial intelligences that rights shouldn’t immediately follow intelligence.

    Is this just more bizarre veneration of the “special nature” of human beings? Some people seem to hold the view that it isn’t some necessity of our intelligence and sentience that grants the rights and moral responsibilities different from a slime mold, it’s something unique to humans in particular.

    I’d hope that idea will die off once we meet or create a second sentient species (or machine) but the history of racism doesn’t necessarily give me much hope on that front.

  30. *I’m not sure about dolphins and orca.

    The Great Apes and Elephants are “more intelligent ” than cetaceans.

  31. So does anybody know why we don’t domesticate chimps? I mean selectively breed them for specific traits and fundamentally change the species.

    Because they are fucking violent, and even if you think you’ve bred it out of them, if they go bad they can literally rip your appendages off.

    Well, then instead of chimps, bonobos. But then, if you thought your chihuahua humping your leg was bad…

  32. SIV – I always expected that would be true of the great apes (we primates have to stick together, don’t’cha know) but hearing elephants are smarter than cetaceans is surprising. Are the elephants (and the great apes for that matter) smarter than all species of cetaceans or just smarter than the average species intelligence among the cetaceans? I assume there must be some notable difference in intelligence (however that’s measured) among the great apes and among the cetaceans as well.

  33. ChrisH,

    I laughed so loud it scared the neighbors

  34. All I know is that the Drudge Report has a story about scientists combining human and cow DNA.

    The results being a creature very similar to my ex wife!

  35. First, I would not want to be a happy slave.

    Don’t be an idiot…you are already are one…only the Dopamine circuit was designed by nature rather then by man.

  36. joshua corning: I already acknowledged that in the article. However, I was speculating that deliberately designed dopamine circuits could be targeted so that I all I would want to do is obey some human master and have no other aspirations such as becoming a “weakly god-like entity.”*

    *See Charles Stross’ excellent Accelerando.

  37. God, Shmod… I want my monkey man!!!

  38. Thank you for a great article. I agree that there is no point of creating slaves that are intelligent enough but less intelligent than humans. Even if you disregard moral considerations it would still make no sense. What kind of jobs would they do? It appears that, if technological progress is going to where it seems it is going, humanity is heading for retirement.

    Even now some people who are adept with utilizing technology are literally hundreds of times more productive then others. So in time you will need fewer and fewer people to have everything running until you will need none.

    It seems that it is we who will need an upgrade.

    Weather it is billions of neurons linked together or billions of transistors doesn’t really matter; and eventually magic will happe and our technology will become conscious and intelligent. Except that unlike us, who have their limitations built in, they will be easily upgradeable.

    So what is going to happen to humanity in retirement? That is to humanity that does not contribute, any more, to its own maintenance and survival. Even if no dystopian scenarios take place. Eventually we will probably loose capacity to speak and think since we would not need it. I have already observed this phenomenon on the streets of San Francisco and Oakland where large segment of population is no longer distinguishable from domesticated breeds of animals such as cats and dogs.

  39. See Charles Stross’ excellent Accelerando.

    I like Greg Egan’s Quarantine better which envisions individual control over ones emotional state in real time.

    Imagine coming home for work drained and wanting to do nothing but wanting to sit in front of the TV but being able to tamper with your own dopamine circuit to make you want to do 100 pull ups cook diner and vacuum the living room.

  40. I hate dolphins. You ever see them make tools? No. “They’re so intelligent, like people.” No they aren’t, fucking dolphins. Now crows, on the other hand, are smarter than people think. Which is scary as hell, because certain times of the year there’s a recreation of The Birds on the path to class. Dolphins aren’t smart, just cute. Link for the intelligence of crows:
    http://www.sciencemag.org/feature/data/crow/

  41. Illya reminds me of that fatal human conceit, that somehow work is an essential part of human nature. NOT SO! After the super-tech labor revolution, people who are afraid of change will probably freak the hell out and we’ll see a generation of politically-created make-work projects.

  42. Well, suppose someone obtained a tissue sample from, I dunno, Keira Knightly, made clones in the laboratory, but genetically manipulated those clones so they had the intelligence level, friendliness, loyalty, horniness and tendency to lick/mouth things of a Labrador retriever pup.

    If you’re going to go to all that trouble, you might as well dial up some bigger hooters.

    Just sayin’ . . .

  43. Is it wrong to make intelligent animal slaves?

    Intelligent or not, while you probably could, I do not think you should, Ron.

    But you can eat them. That’s okay.

    Taking freedom away from anyone or anything is repulsive. But if it is a matter of survival, yes we can kill and eat animals.

  44. In the year 2525, if man is still alive…..

  45. because certain times of the year there’s a recreation of The Birds on the path to class.

    I think there is hostile murder at every college campus…but then again you might go to UW and it might be those same fuckers who came after me near the biology building.

  46. I don’t think it’d be that easy to manipulate a relatively intelligent animal’s behavior using neurochemical reward mechanisms. Humans already mess around with their own reward mechanisms extensively and while it can be enjoyable, the results aren’t no-strings-attached happiness.

    The best you could probably do is get addict-style behavior, and I don’t think a “slave” who is hooked on obedience the same way some people get hooked on cocaine is going to work out that well for either party.

  47. I think I would risk dealing with a Keira Knightly sex slave even though all the policy ramifications haven’t been worked out.

  48. The best you could probably do is get addict-style behavior, and I don’t think a “slave” who is hooked on obedience the same way some people get hooked on cocaine is going to work out that well for either party.

    Hey man, you ever suck dick for obedience?

  49. “there is no bright moral line forbidding the uplift of animals to human-level intelligence.”

    Are we stipulating that no human material has been used in “uplifting” these animals?

    The suggestions I’ve heard involve combining human and animal DNA. Can this all be spun as “uplifting the animals” (no bright lines, as opposed to “degrading humans” (bad)? Every proposal for happy, obediant genetically-engineered slaves will be promoted as uplifting other species from what they were before, not as degrading humans.

    “But give the Pope [and now, Ron Bailey] credit for thinking about this in advance,” etc.

    Why not follow the usual approach of the optimists: just dismiss all moral objections as silly superstition, and wait until major problems arise before backhandedly acknowledging that the naysayers may have had a point.

  50. Couldn’t we start, as an experiment of course, with ‘W’ and from there go to Congress if it works out? Or why not just start with Congress? Let’s face it, without intending any offense, they are mostly chimps already.

  51. April fools doods.

  52. Suggestion: What makes people distinct from animals is not necessarily our intelligence, but our ability to have moral feelings.

    For example, computers can beat us at chess, but no computer can tell us that it, eg., feels disgust at cannibalism or is against torture, etc.

    If we somehow breed or build other kinds of sentient beings, the real test for the dignity of the thing is its ability to have morals.

    Just a thought.

  53. 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.

    I don’t understand how the assumption you wouldn’t want something for yourself supports the assumption that no one else would want that. Also, if you are going to use this as a major point in your argument, shouldn’t you say something about religions that teach that submission to the will of a higher power is the path to true happiness, and they millions of adherents who at least profess to believe that such is the truth? It’s hard to believe you aren’t aware of this, unless you somehow missed the fact that the character who would rather rule in hell than be a slave in heaven was Satan.

  54. parse,

    (1) If we believe in a being who is infinitely powerful and good, then it would seem to be kind of obvious that such a being is entitled to a bit more respect than Bill and Ted’s “catch you later, God”?

    (2) If we ditch the whole idea of duties to God which are superior to one’s duties to government, class or nation, then the result is not freedom, but . . . well, for details, then we get . . . consult the history of the last 100 years.

  55. parse: Excellent points. Of course, I was fully aware of where the quotation comes from. I certainly do have a failure of imagination when it comes to “submission” to the will of another-even if the other claims to be a “God.” I will think more about your points. Thanks.

  56. “It is possible that some intellectually-enhanced chimps and dolphins could be psychopathic murderers.”

    You know, I’m all for open discussion of a wide variety of subjects, but sometimes this shit is just stupid. I’m mean, how can you write something like that with a straight face?

  57. Ilya,

    “I have already observed this phenomenon on the streets of San Francisco and Oakland where large segment of population is no longer distinguishable from domesticated breeds of animals such as cats and dogs.”

    Would you mind explaining this and providing some examples? I’m trying to picture it, but all I can see is Rum Tum Tugger.

  58. Now crows, on the other hand, are smarter than people think.

    I heard this on the radio, so I can’t link to sources, but crows aren’t just smart, they seem to be kind of “humane” — although maybe not toward actual humans.

    Crows have been decimated by West Nile virus. Scientists expected that this would really wipe them out, because they live in nuclear families, so once mom and dad die, you expect the kids to be goners.

    Except, they’ve started forming blended families. Uncles and cousins and whatnot get together to keep a family structure intact.

    And, while most other animals either ignore or abandon dying members of their group, with crows, one of them always stays with a dying one. To… comfort them?!?

    They also chase animals into traffic to get the roadkill, clever things.

  59. Noting that many of the posters reverted the article to a discussion of the domestication of animals, I must be on a different wavelength than most of the posters, unless joking about the subject is cool.

    The whole notion of combining human dna with other animals is morally repulsive to me, and seems extremely unwise and arrogant.

  60. It isn’t that any one or two (or several dozen) genetic experiments might not bring great good to humanity, its the opening of the flood gates as mechanized manipulation of genomes works its way out of the hands of a few “well intentioned” scientists in countries which care about oversight and into the hands of nut cases (or even worse, teenagers), and we end up polluting the natural gene pool (of all life forms) beyond balance and destroy the ecosystem.

    The “genie” is coming out of the bottle, and the way information is shared these days, there may be no putting it back.

  61. Note inlight of the following Bailey quote that Nazis fluoridated the water in the concentration camps to keep the inmates more passive.

    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.

  62. Please, no Frankensteins; no Frankenfoods.

  63. Are we going to allow homosexual cat/human hybrids to marry each other? Just wondering.

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