Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Animal "Uplift"

In an essay entitled Moral Universalism Vs. Relativism transhumanist James Hughes refers to a discussion in which we had both been involved a few years ago:
The transhumanist debate over animal “uplift” -- a term coined and given narrative flesh by new IEET fellow David Brin -- has indirectly addressed this conundrum. (The discussion was carried out for instance on the technoliberation list in 2006.) In Citizen Cyborg, I argued that great apes had cognitive and emotional capacities sufficiently close to human that they should enjoy basic human rights, the position argued by the Great Ape Project. But apes are cognitively and therefore morally like human children in that they cannot meaningfully be asked for or provide consent to decisions that affect them. As with children, I argue, we have an obligation to provide apes the means to reach cognitive maturity, through pharmacological, genetic, and nanotechnological cognitive enhancement, so that they can exercise full self-determination.

In response, critics such as Dale Carrico asserted that the project was a form of eugenics and cultural imperialism, forcing a human model of the Good on other species. Whether humans have a right to insist on universal respect for human rights or not, he claimed moral universalism does not extend across species boundaries. Great apes should not be forced to adopt human cognition. George Dvorsky and I, following Peter Singer, argued that species is morally irrelevant.

Permit me a few quick comments.


I enjoyed David Brin's Uplift novels when I read them, but I think he and we should be very leery of the way his punchy little sf conceit has been taken up by a handful of futurologists here and turned into a "term" around which a "debate" now presumably turns.

Let's be very clear about this. There is no "policy debate" on nonhuman animal "Uplift," and the coinage of a term for such a non-existing procedure prior to its arrival constitutes nothing in the way of nudging the procedure into existence or usefully delineating the terms in which the procedure would no doubt be an occasion for real debate should something like it ever actually arrive on the scene or look the least bit actually likely to do so.

Like comparable futurological "coinages" confused with "accomplishments" -- coinages like "nanotechnology" and "cosmeceuticals," which futurologists seem to treat like rabbit-holes to Wonderland -- one can expect that if the term "uplift" does not die on the vine altogether it will achieve its principal life in an advertising campaign sexing up some candy-colored destined-for-landfill handheld electronic device or describing some non-innovative but nonetheless "revolutionary" property of a polyester blend trouser or dishwashing liquid.

Futurological discourses, as with the oft closely connected pseudo disciplines of hyphenated ethics (neuro-ethics, nano-ethics, robo-ethics, and so on), are now and always have been primarily marketing and PR discourses, barking salesmen hyping crap products while fancying themselves philosophers or policy-wonks.


I would imagine that David Brin is far too knowledgeable about the history of science fiction to labor under the misconception that his are the only or the earliest works in which nonhuman animals are tinkered with so as to converse in a more or less human animal fashion in company with human protagonists in a speculative tale.

It is quite wrong to imply, then, as Hughes seems to me to do, that Brin is the only one who has "given flesh" to this recurring science fictional conceit. And, more to the point, it is really quite flabbergastingly weird, though perfectly typical for futurologists, that the phrase a transhumanist like Hughes would use to make this attribution is "given flesh" in the first place -- inasmuch as nonhuman animal "uplift" has no actually existing fleshly incarnation at all on earth.

As usual, would-be wonder-boy futurologists have lost track of the distinction between science fiction and science, and proceed from this confusion to fancy themselves serious intellectuals in a serious policy-making "think-tank" delineating logical entailments and gaming out various scenarios premised on treatment of the non-real-as-if-it-were-real and as if this pet-nonreality is of urgent moment to our contemplation of the real, in the manner of an hypothesis, a prediction, an allegory, a thought-experiment, or some confused jumble of these.

Such discussions can also take the form of a fanboy-fangrrl circle-jerk, but I didn't include that in the preceding list of confusions simply because I approve of that sort of thing. And, indeed, so long as one doesn't confuse the pleasures of fandom subcultures and sf literary salons with the efforts of critical thought or policy deliberation -- as the Robot Cultists all inevitably and incessantly do -- you can count me among the enthusiasts of such circle jerks, big ol' queergeek that I am. Of course, nobody has to join a Robot Cult or indulge in the fantasy that geekdom is a modality of wonkdom to enjoy the pleasures of sf blueskying of fanwanking.


Hughes writes that I have "asserted that the project was a form of eugenics and cultural imperialism." The first thing I would want to be very clear about is that there is no such project in existence and so I don't think it IS anything at all, strictly speaking. The only actually-existing Project to which Hughes' essay refers here is The Great Ape Project, and I happen to so approve of the Great Ape Project that readers of Amor Mundi will find a link to it in my blogroll, indeed will find that it is something to which I have drawn the attention of my students in many courses that touch on questions of nonhuman animal rights or environmental justice. That should come as no surprise to anybody who knows that I have been an ethical vegetarian for nearly twenty years, have written and taught extensively on animal rights questions, and so on. I wouldn't want anybody mistakenly to think I disdain the actually-existing and actually-important work of the Great Ape Project as a "form of eugenics and cultural imperialism" just because a confused transhumanist fancies talking about an idea in a science fiction novel somehow constitutes involvement in a "project" of some kind.

Apart from the foregoing, however, I will cheerfully concede that I do indeed assert that were it to become technically feasible to do so -- as, mind you, it is not now, nor even remotely relevantly so to any actually earthly concern whatsoever -- nonetheless "apes should not be forced to adopt human cognition," very much as Hughes reports. Hughes says that I consider this a matter of "forcing a human model of the Good on other species." Since in the very same paragraph Hughes declares "species is morally irrelevant" to the question of "universal respect for… rights… [and] moral universalism" and seems to oppose my assertion that "apes should not be forced to adopt human cognition" (should such a thing be possible, as it palpably is not), well, I really must say that it seems to me that Hughes is pretty much admitting that he does indeed straightforwardly advocate "forcing a human model of the Good on other species." I don't see how this could be a controversial attribution on my part to Hughes, it seems quite literally to be his claim.


I personally think it is immoral to recognize the suffering of nonhuman animals as suffering that does not matter simply by virtue of making a foundational distinction between human and nonhuman animals. Among the effects of this foundational distinction in my view is that the figure of a being that is apprehended as the being whose suffering is real but whose suffering does not matter subsequently attaches to categories of humans as well via what I describe as "bestializing discourses" in ways that facilitate their mistreatment and exploitation.

But I do think it is quite as wrongheaded to fancy that in eliminating this false foundational distinction between human and nonhuman animals one should therefore treat all the endlessly many differences that make a difference among the varieties of animals, human or nonhuman, fish, fowl, mammal, insect, virus, clam as matters of indifference, morally or otherwise.

My own vegetarianism is ethical, but the moral standing I respect in the cow I would not consume for a questionable "taste" in meat does not confuse me as to the need to extend to that cow a right to the ballot box. I would not eat a horse because I respect it too much, but I hardly would seek to send a mountain lion to trial for murder because she does not share my morals on that question.

I do indeed think that a profoundly and perniciously eugenic outlook drives the curious thought experiments of the transhumanists who would seek to impose anthropocentric cognitive homogeneity on all conscious beings in the name of "universal rights." Quite apart from the foolishness of treating all of these fanciful conceits as matters of urgent policy in the first place, it seems to me quite obscene to assume as a position of ethical concern for nonhuman animals that nonhuman animals in their differences from human ones are inferior, suffering, exploited, unrespectable beings. That is to say, it is precisely in refusing to respect nonhuman animals in their differences that Hughes seems to want to claim his is the higher form of respect for them. And I find such a proposition -- if indeed I am characterizing him aright -- perverse in the extreme.

Hughes would seem to respect difference so much that he thinks almost any difference can and should be crowbarred into conformity with the human optimality he happens to incarnate himself. How very respectful! What a stunning moral vision!


Notice that in taking up Brin's fictional term "uplift" simply to describe any prosthetic/technical intervention -- however hypothetical or utterly fanciful -- through which a nonhuman mode of cognition might be policed into conformity with a legibly human mode, Hughes and like-minded transhumanists explicitly refuse any of a number of more neutral characterizations of such an imagined change and affirm thereby that any change that is a change in the direction of what they construe as a human norm is a change "upward," a change for the better.

I do not happen myself to assume in advance that any such imaginable change would inevitably be a change for the worst, forcibly imposed, by the way, and so I would not advocate any kind of pre-emptive prohibition of any such interventions should something like them eventually come to be possible, who knows when who knows how who knows what. The devil, as well as the angels, would no doubt be in the details, as is usually the case.

And it is of course all these crucial details -- all the situational costs, risks, benefits, stakeholders, technical specifications -- that are unavailable to us here and now. This is one of the reasons why I believe all such futurological handwaving is almost inevitably perniciously obfuscatory, even when technodevelopmental vicissitudes happen to churn up some gizmo that might seem to have been anticipated in some highly generic way by futurologists. Devices and techniques, when they do appear on the scene, yield their impacts and significances in the actual situations in which they appear. Futurological anticipation merely freights such arrivals with the hyperbolic hopes and fears of an earlier moment long past, deranging sense in the name of foresight and usually in the service of incumbency or, worse, a quick buck.


But the point I want to emphasize here, by way of conclusion, is that Hughes' "transhumanist" preference for the term "Uplift" to designate what he imagines, and pines for, as an eventual technical imposition of anthro-conformist cognition on the actually-existing cognitive variety of incarnated consciousness among earthly species looks to me to reveal a eugenicist outlook as plain and palpable as one could ask for.

It is interesting to note that Hughes has also expressed (and he is far from alone among transhumanists in so doing) his highly confident assessment that certain neuro-atypical states designated as "autistic" are sub-optimal. He has said that prescribing ritalin to kids amounts to "cognitive enhancement" (in case you are wondering, I agree that some parents are right to want their kids to be prescribed ritalin, but that other parents are just as right to resist such prescriptions even against the strong advice of authorities). He has also said that a non-hearing parent's desire for a non-hearing child amounts to a kind of child abuse. All this strongly suggests to me that it is not just into human conformity but into conformity with an even more crabbed and confined conception of the "properly human" on his own highly parochial terms that Hughes might want to "emancipate" earthly incarnated cognitive diversity from its manifold "sub-optimalities."

This terminological exposure of a eugenicist outlook seems to me only a little more obvious in the term "Uplift" than the same exposure of scarcely stealthed eugenicism connected to the general tendency among far more transhumanist-identified futurologists to use the word "enhancement" to describe any number of genetic, cognitive, and prosthetic interventions they happen to expect eventually to arrive on the scene. Usually, of course, the Robot Cultists hype this eventuality into "soon" to tap into the various Rapture-Ready techno-transcendence narratives on which their membership organizations depend to keep asses in the pews and dollars in the collection plate.

As I have repeatedly argued in the past on this question (for example here and here and, more generally, in many of the pieces anthologized here), an intervention that yields a different morphology or capacitation is always only an "enhancement" in respect to certain specific desires among others on offer, only in respect to certain specific ends among others on offer. Almost inevitably a relative capacitation in respect to certain wants or ends will constitute at one and the same time a relative incapacitation in respect to others.

There are endlessly many ways of being in the world, endlessly many viable, worthy, wanted lifeways and possible incarnations and paths of private perfection available to experience and imagination. To associate a particular constellation of capacities, morphologies, ends, lifeways as optimal ideals or given norms toward the attainment of which any intervention is to be regarded uncritically or neutrally as a generalized "enhancement" is to assign universal values where what is valued or not by whom for what under what circumstances is in fact radically and interminably and properly under contest. This endlessly reiterated disavowal or denigration of morphological and lifeway diversity and contestation among too many transhumanists and technocratic futurologists more generally is also the expression of an essentially eugenic outlook in my view, and should be condemned as such.


erickingsley said...

I got yer "Uplift" right here:

...and even more entertainingly, here:

I look forward to the inevitable trademark fight between the Transhumanist "Bio-Uplift" Project and Victoria's Secret, defending their "Biofit Uplift" line of bras.

jimf said...

> I would imagine that David Brin is far too knowledgeable
> about the history of science fiction to labor under the
> misconception that his are the only or the earliest works
> in which nonhuman animals are tinkered with so as to
> converse in a more or less human animal fashion in company
> with human protagonists in a speculative tale.

Yes, let me offer yet another plug for a classic of the genre,
Olaf Stapledon's _Sirius_, about an "uplifted" dog. It can
be found paired with Stapledon's _Odd John_, a classic of the
superhuman genre, in this edition:

I suspect that _Sirius_ offers a more sophisticated look at
the ethics of "uplifted" animals that most of what passes for
"serious" discussion of the matter.

jimf said...

[A] variety of other drugs was. . . added to the torrent now being
enthusiastically and quite legally poured down children's throats.
In 1997, the UK-based drug company Shire bought the rights to a failed
juenile anti-obesity drug that researcher had noticed had a calming
effect on children, and 'repositioned' the substance dexamphetamine
(Adderall) as a treatment for ADHD. Ritalin has to be taken
throughout the day (and is apparently sometimes dispensed by
teachers themselves), whereas Adderall is a slow-release formulation
that needs to be taken only before and after school. . .

Shire's chief financial officer. . . was commendably frank. Shire
gathered all available data on the 180,000 US-based clinical psychiatrists,
paediatricians and general practitioners who had written 80 per
cent of ADHD scrips. Within this group tiers of American physicians
were selected according to the volume of drugs they prescribed.
A sales strategy was mapped out accordingly. 'We literally treat it
as a pyramid,' says [the CFO]. 'The first 1000 physicians probably
prescribe 15 per cent of the market. The top 1000 get 35 visits
a year.' Shire now has 23 per cent of the ADHD market in the US,
earning $250 million profit out of revenues of just over $1 billion.
This is hard-selling big business. . .

[F]or a long time, there seemed to be an extraordinary difference
between the behaviour of children in the US and the UK. British child
psychologists were diagnosing only one-tenth the rate found amongst
young Americans, and Ritalin was not being prescribed. Why? . . .
Either there is a huge level of over-diagnosis in the US, partly as
a result of teacher and parent pressure, or -- a much more attractive
proposition to proponents of ADHD -- the British are simply
behind the times. . .

In any event, the UK. . . is now catching up fast. . . In the early
1990s, when prescription of amphetamine-like drugs was still
fairly rigorously controlled in the aftermath of the panic about
addiction which resulted from the ready availability of
the drug in the 1960s, Ritalin prescriptions were running
at about 2000 a year. By 1997 the prescription level had increased
nearly fifty-fold, to 92,000 a year, and by 2002 the figure
was around 150,000. . . There is no sign yet of the rise
levelling off.

Why this huge shift. . .? . . . [P]ressure to to 'recognize' the
disorder and to prescribe Ritalin seems to have come initially
from the parents themselves, sometimes in collaboration with
doctors or child psychiatrists working privately, outside the N[ational]
H[ealth]S[ervice]. . . A few powerfully-placed child psychiatrists
with a strong biological rather than social bent also began
bringing the diagnosis and the prescribing practices into their
routine. . .

The media became interested. . . and the Ritalin bandwagon began
to roll. Both the British Psychological Society and the National
Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE [:-0]). . . pronounced
themselves cautiously in favour of Ritalin (and NICE has now
approved Strattera). . .

[B]oth the 'genetic' and the 'environmental' advocates downplay
the societal, relational issues and instead seek for individual
solutions to what others would regard as in large measure
social problems. Both, though each would deny it, are displaying
a form of biological determinism.

jimf said...

> [Hughes] has said that prescribing ritalin to kids amounts
> to "cognitive enhancement" (in case you are wondering, I agree
> that some parents are right to want their kids to be prescribed
> ritalin, but that other parents are just as right to resist
> such prescriptions even against the strong advice of authorities).

Yes, Ritalin (capital "R") is a Ciba-Geigy (Novartis) trade name,
methylphenidate (lower-case "m") is the generic name.

For a sober (and sobering) account of mind-modification technologies,
the current state-of-the-art, the history, and the prospects, here's
a book I've recently been browsing in: _The Future of the Brain: The Promise
and Perils of Tomorrow's Neuroscience_ by Steven Rose (2005).
(I suppose many >Hists would dismiss Rose as a pinko, but of course
those same >Hists might say the same thing about James Hughes. ;-> )

pp. 258ff.

"Because a child diagnosed with ADHD [Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder]
isn't seen as being naughty or deprived, he neither needs to be
punished nor offered social support. Instead, he becomes a
medical problem. . . [F]rom the 1960s on, children. . . began to
be treated with a drug that enhances dopamine neurotransmission.
This is methylphenidate (Ritalin), patented by Ciba-Geigy (now Novartis).
[Its] effects are rather similar to those of amphetamine. . .
[B]ack then, amphetamine was widely known as 'speed', and viewed with
suspicion, rather as Ecstasy is now. . . When methylphenidate began
to be prescribed. . . it was claimed that instead of acting as
a stimulant, it had a calming effect on ADHD children, improving focus
and attention, reducing disruptive behaviour and benefiting school
performance. At first, this was regarded as paradoxical. . .

[Before] long it became apparent that the drug affected 'normal' and 'ADHD'
children similarly. . . [T]he important thing is that the drug
seemed to work. Children on Ritalin are said to become less fidgety
in class and to show an improvement in 'behavior which is perceived
by teachers as disruptive and socially inappropriate'. No wonder
that ADHD soon began to be diagnosed on the basis of school-teachers'
reports and was observed to show a peculiar expression pattern, often
remitting at weekends and in school holidays. . .

jimf said...

[I]t was not too long before these rattish observations became
extrapolated to humans. Faced with escalating violence
in US cities during the 1960s, two US psychosurgeons, Vernon Mark
and Frank Ervin, in research funded by US law enforcement
agencies, argued that the riots may have been precipitated
by individuals with damaged or overactive amygdalae, and that
a potential treatment would be to amygdalectomise selected
'ghetto ringleaders' [:-0]. Some 5-10 per cent of US citizens,
they claimed, might be candidates for such psychosurgery.
(This magic percentage range will crop up several times in
what follows.)

An indication of the candidates proposed for such operations is
provided by an exchange of correspondence between the Director of
Corrections, Human Relations Agency (_sic_), Sacramento, and
the Director of Hospitals and Clinics, University of California
Medical Center, in 1971. The Human Relations expert asks for
a clinical investigation of selected prison inmates 'who have
shown aggressive, destructive behavior, possibly as a result
of severe neurological disease' to conduct 'surgical and
diagnostic procedures. . . to locate centers in the brain which
may have been previously damaged and which could serve as the
focus for episodes of violent behavior' for subsequent surgical

An accompanying letter describes a possible candidate for such
treatment, whose infractions whilst in prison include problems
of 'respect towards officials', 'refusal to work' and 'militancy'.
He had to be transferred between prisons because of his
'sophistication' . . . he had to be warned several times . . .
to cease his practicing and teaching Karate and judo. He was
transferred for increasing militancy, leadership ability
and outspoken hatred for the white society . . . he was identified
as one of several leaders of the work strike of April 1971 . . .
Also evident at approximately the same time was an avalanche
of revolutionary reading material.' To which request the
Director of Hospitals and Clinics replies, offering to provide the
treatment 'on a regular cost basis. At the present time this
would amount to approximately $1000 per patient for a seven-day
stay . . .' Cheap at the price."

Tennessee Williams, anyone?

jimf said...

Unlike the present generation of cognitive enhancers, there is
no doubt that Ritalin 'works', as in the testimony of the
children. . . quoted above, though none of these is perhaps
as poignant as the American child quoted in the pro-Ritalin
literature who spoke of 'magic pills which make me quiet and
everybody like me'. Children who are calmer at home and school
are easier to parent and to teach. However, Ritalin no more
'cures' ADHD than aspirin cures toothache. Masking the psychic
pain that disruptive behaviour indicates can provide a
breathing space for parents, teachers and the child to negotiate
a new and better relationship, but if the opportunity to do
this is not seized, we will once again find ourselves trying
to adjust the mind rather than adjust society. . ."

There is some truly appalling (at least by today's standards,
though not perhaps in all circles, even today) information
in Rose's book about the history of neuro-technological

pp. 227ff.

"With the advent of newer technologies. . . came the prospect
of more direct physical intervention into neural processes,
always of course in the interests of the patient. A forerunner
was the Portugese neurologist Egas Moniz, who in the 1930s
developed a procedure for the treatment of schizophrenia and
related conditions which involved removing the entire frontal
lobe (lobotomy) -- later refined into doing no more than severing
the tracts that connected it with the rest of the cortex
(leucotomy). Moniz's patients were said to be calmer and more
tractable after such treatment, and he was awarded the Nobel Prize
for it in 1949. . . By 1949 some 1200 patients a year were
being lobotomised in Britain, whilst in the US the flamboyant
Walter Freeman (not to be confused with his son, the
neurophysiologist Walter J Freeman) demonstrated his skill at
leucotomising unanaesthetised patients, using an ice-pick driven
through the orbit of the eye, in front of -- presumably --
admiring student audiences.

These 'heroic' procedures (heroism is often ascribed to doctors
and surgeons when it might better be restricted to their patients)
declined toward the end of the 1950s, when newer generations
of psychoactive chemicals began to be developed. However,
psychosurgery, as it came to be called, lived on in other forms,
especially in the US in the treatment both of patients in
mental hospitals and of prison inmates. Thus there was
considerable interest in the observation that removing the
amygdala in rodents rendered them less 'aggressive'. . .

jimf said...

> Tennessee Williams, anyone?