Volume 1, Issue 4
4th Quarter, 2006

All Together Now: Developmental and Ethical Considerations for Biologically Uplifting Nonhuman Animals

George Dvorsky

This article was submitted for inclusion within the Journal of Personal Cyberconsciousness by George Dvorsky, deputy editor of Betterhumans (an evolving community of forward thinkers) and co-founder and president of the Toronto Transhumanist Association. The original article appeared on the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies web site and can be viewed in its entirety there.

Through the application of Rawlsian moral frameworks, and in consideration of the acknowledgement of legally recognized nonhuman persons, Dvorsky shows that the presence of uplift biotechnologies will represent a new primary good and thus necessitate the inclusion of highly sapient nonhumans into human society. Dvorsky also argues that uplift biotechnologies without the legal recognition of nonhuman persons and a mandate for responsible uplifting will ultimately lead to abuse, which adds another important consideration to the uplift imperative.

As the potential for enhancement technologies becomes more of a reality, the issue as to whether or not we are morally obligated to biologically enhance nonhuman animals and integrate them into human and posthuman society becomes more salient. Consequently, the status of nonhuman species and the biosphere will eventually come under the purview of guided intelligence rather than autonomous processes. That said, a developmental tendency towards uplift does not imply that it is necessarily good or right.

Animal uplifting, also referred to as biological uplift or simply uplift, is the theoretical prospect of endowing nonhumans with greater capacities, including and especially increased intelligence.[1] A number of trends are in the process of converging which will in short order force the issue of animal uplift to a head. First, there is the strong potential for the development of the so-called GNR technologies (genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics/AI) that will make augmentation possible for humans[2]; consequently, these interventions will also be applicable to nonhuman animals[3]. The second trend is the rise in prominence of nonanthropocentric ethics and the designation of legal personhood status to nonhumans.

A developmental tendency towards uplift does not imply that it is good or right; more properly, it can be argued that uplift scenarios carry great moral currency. The potential for abuse and the creation of wrongful lives through the use of uplift technologies will need to be offset by sanctioned methods of animal uplift. Considerations that offer ethical weight to such a seemingly radical mandate include improved safety and health, the prevention of abuse, better lives, and minimal acceptable standards of living and wellness for all sapient life.

That said, through the application of Rawlsian moral frameworks and in consideration of the acknowledgement of legally recognized nonhuman persons, it can be shown that the existence of uplift biotechnologies will represent a new primary good and will thus necessitate the inclusion of highly sapient nonhumans into what has traditionally been regarded as human society. In addition to issues of distributive justice, the Rawlsian notion of original position can be used to answer the question of whether or not there is consent to uplift.

Indeed, the right to self-determination and liberty are among the most esteemed of human values, and as nonhuman animals increasingly enter into humanity’s circle of moral and legal consideration, they are increasingly coming to be considered as members of the social contract.

Precedents for intra-species cultural uplift abound in human history, providing both sobering and edifying episodes that showcase the possibilities for the instigated and accelerated advancement of culturally and technologically delayed societies. As a number of scientists, philosophers and futurists have recently revealed, there is mounting evidence in support of the suggestion that these historical episodes are symptomatic of a larger developmental trend, namely the inexorable and steady advancement of intelligence.

A strong case can be made that life and intelligent civilizations on Earth have been following a general developmental tendency away from unconscious Darwinian processes and towards increased organization and intelligent control.[4] As Steven J. Dick has noted through his Intelligence Principle, “the maintenance, improvement and perpetuation of knowledge and intelligence is the central driving force of cultural evolution, and that to the extent intelligence can be improved, it will be improved.”[5] [italics added]

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1. For an excellent science fiction treatment of uplift scenarios, see David Brin’s Uplift series. (back to top)

2. See Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, Viking Adult, 2005; Joel Garreau, Radical Evolution : The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies -- and What It Means to Be Human, Doubleday, 2005; Ramez Naam, More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement, Broadway, 2005; Gregory Stock, Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future, Houghton Mifflin, 2002; Mihail C. Roco and William Sims Bainbridge, eds. “Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance: Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information
Technology and Cognitive Science”
, National Science Foundation. (back to top)

3. Given the strong possibility that enhancement technologies will be initially tested on nonhuman animals (whether in an ethical or unethical fashion), it is likely that uplift technologies for animals will come into existence before human versions. (back to top)

4. See Robert Wright, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, Vintage, 2001; John Smart, "Intro to the Developmental Singularity Hypothesis (DSH): A Speculative Evolutionary Developmental Model for Our Universe's History of Hierarchical Emergence Under Conditions of Continously Accelerating Change", last accessed June 1, 2006. (back to top)

5. Stephen J. Dick, 2003. Int J. Astrobiology , 2, 65. (back to top)


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