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Animal Rights... and Uplift

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for Jane Goodall and David Brin

Animal rights, while still controversial as I write, need no explanation. But uplift does. The term, coined by David Brin, means to breed or genetically engineer animals into new species of people. The concept has a moral component: Brin argues we're morally obliged to spread the benefits of intelligence, language, knowledge, opposable thumbs! After all, haven't other species shared our pollution and habitat degradation? We won the Darwinian war... but after a war comes reconstruction. We owe them reparations.

The current debate on genetic engineering is cast in terms of benefits or harm to humans, and the risk of harm to other species. Brin's notion of uplift points out the fourth, overlooked possibility and moral stance--benefits to nonhumans.

harm humans help humans
harm nonhumans help nonhumans

Is it possible to improve an ecosystem? What does that mean? In the world of tooth and claw, one species's competitive gain is another's loss. But we recognize overall harm to an ecosystem--reduced diversity, reduced biomass. Can't we acknowledge that change can be good, too? Decrease erosion in a desert and charge up groundwater so it supports thin forest--yes, some desert species will suffer, but if we clearcut an open forest leaving a eroded desert behind, we'd unhesitatingly call it degradation. A spring in the desert brings trouble to some, but perhaps "the greatest good for the greatest number" does apply to nonhuman species as well; it's a formulation not so far from "biomass times diversity." And it really can grow as well as shrink.

What if we only have the moral right to alter an ecosystem or individual species for its own benefit, not for our profit?

Biomass, diversity... are we ready to concede that consciousness is also good? We find it so. So don't we have the moral obligation to work to spread that benefit, too, to other species? There's quite a long list of creatures not far behind us, short on just one element of the cluster needed to build or join a civilization: hands, big brains, sociability, language, a long enough lifespan... Can you really say that any of those are negative? Would YOU give any of them up, dear reader? Then don't you have an obligation to help apes, elephants, ravens, parrots, wolves, cetaceans, giant squid (etc) acquire the last elements of the cluster that they lack?

The changes needn't be via genetic engineering. It's quite possible that an intelligent animal wired up for instant access to math, logic and grammar co-processors would constitute a person. Certainly all the core problems of AI--ignorance of the real world, difficulty translating complex visual or spatial imagery into something meaningful, difficulties with natural languages and their emotional nuances, self-awareness and awareness of others, motivation and flexibility... all are problems the higher animals solved long ago. Animals and computers seem rather complementary, in fact.

Given dual paths to the outcome, I suspect uplift and animal people will cease to be theoretical within our lifetimes.

And of course it wouldn't be pure altruism. Culture has always gained from diversity. But of course, that's the grown-up argument. The real reason to start an uplift program is that a multispecies civilization would be more fun. Kids in all cultures start out in a fairytale world, where other creatures talk, and only reluctantly grow into a world where humans are seen as unique. But not, contrary to certain religious doctrines, really apart. We're not superior beings--nor monsters. We're simply creatures of privilege: not the first to reach the ideosphere (the cetaceans almost certainly beat us there), but the first talkers with hands, who could fully exploit the new realm's resources. A pioneer species.

Any ecosystem with a pioneer species exploding across it is precarious. For our own survival, we (and "we" means people, not humans) need other species to join us--if only to keep us sane on the journey.

I'm no organizer. I know I can't build the Uplift Institute. But really, there ought to someplace where these issues are discussed, and guidelines worked out, and policies advocated--until the concept of uplift is taken for granted in popular culture.

Aw, c'mon, build it for me. You know you want to.

An aside:

It's always seemed odd to me people on all sides of the genetic engineering debate focus on whether it's right to manipulate other organisms for human benefit. Morally, isn't the only genome we have a right to meddle with precisely the one we're afraid to--our own? Rather than twist other creatures into better servants, why not change our own genes so we need less? Better night vision instead of more lights, more efficient digestion not more food. Smaller people use less resources. Small enough, and wings become possible--goodbye cars! Why should intelligence reshape the world? It's more intelligent for intelligence to reshape itself to fit into the world more easily.

Uplift starts at home.

RELATED TOPICS: animal people (many sublists) - biotechnology - evolution - hands - artificial intelligence - TILT!: alternate Earths, alternate evolutions - were-creatures and shapeshifters - specism and other bigotries - sexy creatures - interspecies love and relationships - See also the full INDEX OF SUBJECTS.

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AHAB: by Wayan; 1994/1/10, a shamanic dream on the ethics of Moby Dick.
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ANIMAL DREAMS: by Carolyn Tipton; a 2019 poem arguing that without animal viewpoints the world goes flat
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ANIMAL TRANSFIGURATION: by Edwin Muir; c.1920, a dream of an animal Resurrection
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BODY MESS: by Wayan; summer 1981, ink, 3x5" surreal nondream sketch.
If artists do this with ink, what makes you think genetic engineers will do any better with flesh?...
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SOULS IN THE MUD: by Wayan; 1981/1/14, a thoughtful dream.
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