Free Willy

On a Mothers’ Day trip to the Pittsburgh Zoo yesterday, I had the pleasure of watching the antics of a baby sea otter. The docent explained that it had been found on an Alaskan beach along with its two dead parents, nursed on Pedialyte to stabilize it, and then shipped via FedEx to Pittsburgh, where to all appearances it is thriving.

It is one of those little stories that tells us what a remarkable time and place we live in. For the vast stretch of human history, I’m guessing, a foundling sea otter would have meant some useful fur and perhaps meat (does anybody eat sea otter?). Books like Rascal and Ring of Bright Water suggest that, for some decades in the twentieth century, somebody might have tried to make this otter a pet. Now, a network of commerce, civic institutions, and individual professionals is ready to swoop in and save the critter, at no small monetary cost. It is a privilege to live in a society that can afford to do such unnecessary things, and, on balance, I’m willing to say it represents something we can fairly call progress.
But what is the next step in such progress? The docent did not present a cause of death for the otter’s parents; but plainly, for many, further progress would mean at least making sure that human activities were not the cause. Hence we list the sea otter as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, and we can imagine all sorts of schemes to protect it and its habitat. Beyond that, as we have had occasion to discuss on this blog, some would say further progress would mean protecting it from the dangers and pains of nature itself — such as by eliminating animals who prey on them. And then, there are those who imagine that someday “we” — that is to say, our posthuman descendents — will be able to implement the Uplift of sea otters, granting them the gift of rational intelligence.
Now, I think it is fair to say that the consensus position of the vast quantities of science fiction I read as a much younger man in the 1960s and 70s was that in the future there would be no wild animals at all, and that a trip to a zoo might mean a look at exotic species like cats, dogs, and pigeons. The prospect of such a future is still a threatening card to play in the hand of environmentalism. But here is a great example of where extremes meet. For at a certain point, our vision of progress for the sea otter would mean its extinction just as surely as its entire habitat were paved over. The more we imagine ourselves managing the world of the sea otter, the less it is a wild animal, and the less it is a wild animal, the more it seems reasonable to place it within our technological dominion, until even its self-evident joie de vivre is not enough if it can’t tell us all about it.
Plainly, we are on this slope already — the otter I saw will likely spend the rest of its life in a zoo, and I for one will enjoy visiting it there. The question is, how slippery will this slope prove to be? It will be all the slipperier if we fail to note that, like any other good thing, there can be too much progress.

[Image: Sea otter at the Pittsburgh Zoo via flick user mikentiffy]

David Pearce takes the meat out of meatspace

[A few more posts about last weekend’s H+ Summit at Harvard.]

Pearce: pleasure, no painAnother of the transhumanist movement’s more prominent figures, David Pearce (bio, slides), spoke at the conference about what he considers a moral imperative: the abolition of “suffering in all sentient life.” As with much of the rest of the conference, this was another rehashing of ideas already widely discussed, with little new added.

The first big project that Pearce has in mind to unsuffer the world is ending the slaughter of farm animals. The problem of our continuing taste for meat is supposed to be solved not by making all of us into vegetarians but rather, at least in the short-term, by creating artificial meat in a laboratory without slaughtering animals. My biggest concern here is that with the need for fresh, real meat removed, the plots of future Jurassic Park films would be ruined, and that is a horror we can never allow. (Except, as Dr. Grant knows, T-Rex doesn’t want to be fed, he wants to hunt.)

I kid, but the other big project Pearce mentions is ending predation, and one of the ways he suggests doing this actually is by feeding animals artificially-produced meats. This, he thinks, will be inadequate for the whole problem, and what we’ll really need to do is to redesign predators themselves so as not to be predatory — a notion we have discussed here on Futurisms before. This is one of the most striking illustrations of the heart of the transhumanist attitude, for make no mistake about it: Pearce here is calling for the destruction of Earth’s biosphere, as surely as if he were to call for animals to be re-engineered so as not to emit carbon dioxide.

Among the highlights from this little bit of sort-of well-intentioned lunacy was an assertion from Pearce that lions are the same thing as serial killers, and so we have just as much obligation to stop them. Does it need saying that lions, unlike serial killers, lack the capacities for empathy, understanding right and wrong, and choosing whether or not to kill, and so are amoral rather than immoral creatures? Apparently it does.

It shows, again, the radicalism characteristic of this movement that the call for such a project is greeted with so many yawns at this conference.

Kitty minus kitty

In my last post, I noted the problems with Michael Anissimov’s attempt to defend “morphological freedom” as following from the civil rights movement. I described the way racism has been historically combated by appealing to what we have in common. This is an inherent problem with comparing “species-ism” to racism, because racism is combated precisely by appealing to our common humanity — that is, to our common species.
But it’s worth noting that a similar point holds when we look at an existing, non-hypothetical debate about interspecies rights and difference: the animal-rights debate. If we apply Mr. Anissimov’s “morphological freedom” argument to that debate, we again find it pretty lacking: Advocates of animal rights don’t argue that we should treat, say, a pig with respect or kindness because it “has a right to be a pig,” but rather because we should empathize with the way that, like us, a pig is intelligent (after a fashion) and has emotions and the capacity for suffering.
In fact, Mr. Anissimov, like many transhumanists, considers himself to be continuing the movement for animal rights in addition to civil rights. It’s all part of the ostensible transhumanist benevolence outreach, the grand quest to end suffering. But their formulation of this is to “reprogram” animals so as to end predation. Cats could go on being cat-like in some way, but we have an obligation to remake them so that they no longer hunt and kill. But have a look at this:
Where is the line here between the feline instincts to hunt and play? Is the hunting aspect of a cat something wholly separable from its nature, something that can be cleanly excised? Isn’t a cat minus its hunting instinct a cat minus a cat?
The suggestion of a project to end predation illustrates the transhumanist inclination to see living beings as simply a collection of components that have no logical dependencies on each other — as independent parts rather than wholes. But, more to the point, it makes the question of morphological freedom a pressing one for transhumanists themselves, who before undertaking such a project would quite seriously have to confront the question, “does a cat have a right to be a cat?”

Transhuman Ambitions and the Lesson of Global Warming

Anyone who believes in the science of man-made global warming must admit the important lesson it reveals: humans can easily alter complex systems not of their own cohesive design but cannot easily predict or control them. Let’s call this (just for kicks) the Malcolm Principle. Our knowledge is little but our power is great, and so we must wield it with caution. Much of the continued denial of a human cause for global warming — beyond the skepticism merited by science — is due to a refusal to accept the truth of this principle and the responsibility it entails.


Lake Hamoun, 1976-2001,
courtesy UNEP

And yet a similar rejection of the Malcolm Principle is evident even among some of those who accept man’s role in causing global warming. This can be seen in the great overconfidence of climate scientists in their ability to understand and predict the climate. But it is far more evident in the emerging support for “geoengineering” — the notion that not only can we accurately predict the climate, but we can engineer it with sufficient control and precision to reverse warming.

It is unsurprising to find transhumanist support for geoengineering. Some advocates even support geoengineering to increase global warming — for instance, Tim Tyler advocates intentionally warming the planet to produce various allegedly beneficial effects. Here the hubris of rejecting the Malcolm Principle is taken to its logical conclusion: Once we start fiddling with the climate intentionally, why not subject it to the whims of whatever we now think might best suit our purposes? Call it transenvironmentalism.
In fact, name any of the most complex systems you can think of that were not created from the start as engineering projects, and there is likely to be a similar transhumanist argument for making it one. For example:
  • The climate, as noted, and thus implicitly also the environment, ecosystem, etc.
  • The animal kingdom, see e.g. our recent lengthy discussion on ending predation.
  • The human nutritional system, see e.g. Kurzweil.
  • The human body, a definitional tenet for transhumanists.
  • The human mind, similarly.
Transhumanist blogger Michael Anissimov (who earlier argued in favor of reengineering the animal kingdom) initially voiced support for intentional global warming, but later deleted the post. He defended his initial support with reference to Singularitarian Eliezer Yudkowsky’s “virtues of rationality,” particularly that of “lightness,” which Yudkowsky defines as: “Let the winds of evidence blow you about as though you are a leaf, with no direction of your own.” Yudkowsky’s list also acknowledges potential limits of rationality implicit in its virtues of “simplicity” and “humility”: “A chain of a thousand links will arrive at a correct conclusion if every step is correct, but if one step is wrong it may carry you anywhere,” and the humble are “Those who most skillfully prepare for the deepest and most catastrophic errors in their own beliefs and plans.” Yet in addition to the “leaf in the wind” virtue, the list also contains “relinquishment”: “Do not flinch from experiences that might destroy your beliefs.”
Putting aside the Gödelian contradiction inherent even in “relinquishment” alone (if one should not hesitate to relinquish one’s beliefs, then one should also not hesitate to relinquish one’s belief in relinquishment), it doesn’t seem that one can coherently exercise all of these virtues at once. We live our lives interacting with systems too complex for us to ever fully comprehend, systems that have come into near-equilibrium as the result of thousands or billions of years of evolution. To take “lightness” and “relinquishment” as guides for action is not simply to be rationally open-minded; rather, it is to choose to reflexively reject the wisdom and stability inherent in that evolution, preferring instead the instability of Yudkowsky’s “leaf in the wind” and the brash belief that what we look at most eagerly now is all there is to see.
Imagine if, in accordance with “lightness” and “relinquishment,” we had undertaken a transhumanist project in the 19th century to reshape human heads based on the fad of phrenology, or a transenvironmentalist project in the 1970s to release massive amounts of carbon dioxide on the hypothesis of global cooling. Such proposals for systemic engineering would have been foolish not merely because of their basis in particular mistaken ideas, but because they would have proceeded on the pretense of comprehensively understanding systems they in fact could barely fathom. The gaps in our understanding mean that mistaken ideas are inevitable. But the inherent opacity of complex systems still eludes those who make similar proposals today: Anissimov, even in acknowledging the global-warming project’s irresponsibility, still cites but a single knowable mechanism of failure (“catastrophic global warming through methane clathrate release”), as if the essential impediment to the plan will be cleared as soon as some antidote to methane clathrate release is devised.
Other transhumanist evaluations of risk similarly focus on what transhumanism is best able to see — namely threats to existence and security, particularly those associated with its own potential creations — which is fine except that this doesn’t make everything else go away. There are numerous “catastrophic errors” wrought already by our failures to act with simplicity and humility — such as our failure to anticipate that technological change might have systemic consequences, as in the climate, environment, and ecosystem; and our tremendous and now clearly exaggerated confidence in rationalist powers exercised directly at the systemic level, as evident in the current financial crisis (see Paul Cella), in food and nutrition (see Michael Pollan and John Schwenkler), and in politics and culture (see Alasdair MacIntyre among many others), just for starters. But among transhumanists there is little serious contemplation of the implications of these errors for their project. (As usual, commenters, please provide me with any counterexamples.)
Perhaps Yudkowsky’s “virtues of rationality” are not themselves to be taken as guides to action. But transhumanism aspires to action — indeed, to revolution. To recognize the consequences of hubris and overreach is not to reject reason in favor of simpleminded tradition or arbitrary givenness, but rather to recognize that there might be purpose and perhaps even unspoken wisdom inherent in existing stable arrangements — and so to acknowledge the danger and instability inherent in the particular hyper-rationalist project to which transhumanists are committed.

Bionics and cats

In light of our lengthy recent discussion about the desire of some transhumanists to eliminate predation in the wild, I’d just like to note a mildly amusing juxtaposition. The cover article in the latest issue of National Geographic is on “Merging Man and Machine.” It focuses on several developments in bionics (although for therapeutic purposes, not enhancement). Meanwhile, a few pages earlier, the magazine has a short article about an effort to protect “the world’s top felines” from extinction. That little article is here — and you can read much more about the Big Cats Initiative elsewhere on the magazine’s website, since the magazine’s publisher, the National Geographic Society, is behind the project.

Bad Humbug, Good Humbug, and Bah Humbug

Blogger Michael Anissimov does not believe in Santa Claus, but he does believe in the possibility, indeed the moral necessity, of overcoming animal predation. To put it another way, he does not believe in telling fantasy stories to children if they will take those stories to be true, but he has no compunctions about telling them to adults with hopes that they will be true.

An obvious difference Mr. Anissimov might wish to point out is that adults are more likely than children to be able to distinguish fantasy from reality. He can (and does) submit his thoughts to their critical appraisal. While that difference does not justify what Mr. Anissimov regards as taking advantage of children by telling them convincing fantasies, it does suggest something about the difference between small children and adults. Small children cannot readily distinguish between fantasy and reality. In fact, there is a great deal of pleasure to be had in the failure to make that distinction. It could even be true that not making it is an important prelude to the subsequent ability to make it. Perhaps those who are fed from an early age on a steady diet of the prosaic will have more trouble distinguishing between the world as it is and as they might wish it to be. But here I speculate.

In any case, surely if one fed small children on a steady diet of stories like the one Mr. Anissimov tells about overcoming predation, they might come to believe such stories as uncritically as other children believe in Santa Claus. I can easily imagine their disappointment upon learning the truth about the immediate prospects of lions lying down with lambs. We’d have to be sure to explain to them very carefully and honestly that such a thing will only happen in a future, more or less distant, that they may or may not live to see — even if small children are not all that good at understanding about long-term futures and mortality.

But in light of their sad little faces it would be a hard parent indeed who would not go on to assure them that a fellow named Aubrey de Grey is working very hard to make sure that they will live very long lives indeed so that maybe they will see an end to animal predation after all! But because “treating them as persons” (in Mr. Anissimov’s phrase) means never telling children stories about things that don’t exist without being very clear that these things don’t exist, it probably wouldn’t mean much to them if we pointed out that Mr. de Grey looks somewhat like an ectomorphic version of a certain jolly (and immortal) elf: