The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man – George Bernard Shaw
Changing the world is ambitious. Changing nature is even more ambitious.
After all, nature is the output of countless generations of refinement by natural selection. Evolution has found many wonderful solutions. But natural selection generally only finds local optima. As I’ve written on a previous occasion:
In places where an intelligent (e.g. human) designer would “go back to the drawing board” and introduce a new design template, biological evolution has been constrained to keep working with the materials that are already in play. Biological evolution lacks true foresight, and cannot do what human designers would call “re-factoring an existing design”.
And as I covered in my review “The human mind as a flawed creation of nature” of the book by Gary Marcus, “Kluge – the haphazard construction of the human mind”:
The basic claim of the book is that many aspects of the human mind operate in clumsy and suboptimal ways – ways which betray the haphazard and often flawed evolutionary history of the mind….
The framework is, to me, both convincing and illuminating. It provides a battery of evidence relevant to what might be called “The Nature Delusion” – the pervasive yet often unspoken belief that things crafted by nature are inevitably optimal and incapable of serious improvement.
For these reasons, I applaud thoughtful attempts to improve human nature – whether by education, meditation, diet and smart drugs, silicon co-processors for our biological brains, genetic re-engineering, and so on. With sufficient overall understanding, we can use the best outputs of human thought to create even better humans.
But what about the rest of nature? If we can consider creating better humans, what about creating better animals? If the technology of the near future can add 50 points, or more, to our human IQs, could we consider applying similar technological enhancements to dolphins, dogs, parrots, and so on?
There are various motivations to considering this question. First, there are people who deeply love their pets, and who might wish to enhance the capabilities of their pets, in a manner akin to enhancing the capabilities of their children. Someone might wonder, if my dog could speak to me, what would it say?
In a way, the experiments to teach chimps sign language already take steps down this direction. (Some chimps that learned sign language seem in turn to have taught elements of it to their own children.)
A different motivation to consider altering animal nature is the sheer amount of horrific pain and trauma throughout the animal kingdom. Truly is “nature, red in tooth and claw“.
During the minute it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive; others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear; others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites; thousands of all kinds are dying from starvation, thirst and disease. It must be so. If there is ever a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored.
But Pearce takes issue with Dawkins:
“It must be so.” Is Richard Dawkins right? Are the cruelties of the food chain an inescapable fact of Nature: no more changeable than, say, Planck’s constant or the Second Law of Thermodynamics? The Transhumanist Declaration expresses our commitment to the “well-being of all sentience”. Yet do these words express merely a pious hope – or an engineering challenge?
My own recent work involves exploring some of the practical steps entailed by compassionate ecosystem redesign – cross-species immunocontraception, genomic rewrites, cultured meat, neurochips, global surveillance and wildlife tracking technologies, and the use of nanorobots for marine ecosystems. Until this century, most conceivable interventions to mitigate the horrors of Nature “red in tooth and claw” would plausibly do more harm than good. Rescue a herbivore [“prey”] and a carnivore [“predator”] starves. And if, for example, we rescue wild elephants dying from hunger or thirst, the resultant population explosion would lead to habitat degradation, Malthusian catastrophe and thus even greater misery. Certainly, the computational power needed to micromanage the ecosystem of a medium-sized wildlife park would be huge by today’s standards. But recall that Nature supports only half a dozen or so “trophic levels”; and only a handful of “keystone predators” in any given habitat. Creating a truly cruelty-free living world may cost several trillion dollars or more. But the problem is computationally tractable within this century – if we acknowledge that wild animal suffering matters.
David’s fan page on Facebook boldly includes the forecast:
“I predict we will abolish suffering throughout the living world”
Unreasonable? Probably. Scientifically credible? Perhaps. Noble? Definitely. Radical? This is about as radical as it gets. Thoughtful? Read David’s own writings and make up your own mind.
Alternatively, if you’re in or nearby London, come along to this month’s UKH+ meeting (tomorrow, Saturday 16th October), where David will be the main speaker. He wrote the following words to introduce what he’ll be talking about:
The Transhumanist Declaration advocates “the well-being of all sentience, including humans, non-human animals, and any future artificial intellects, modified life forms, or other intelligences to which technological and scientific advance may give rise.” Yet is “the well-being of all sentience” serious science – or just utopian dreaming? What does such a commitment entail? On what kind of realistic timeframe might we command enough computational power to police an entire ecosystem?
In this talk, the speaker wants to review recent progress in understanding the neurobiology of pleasure, pain and our core emotions. Can mastery of our reward circuitry ever deliver socially responsible, intelligent bliss rather than crude wireheading? He also wants to examine and respond to criticisms of the abolitionist project that have been levelled over the past decade – and set out the biggest challenges, as he sees them, to the prospect of a totally cruelty-free world.