This time, let’s veer into an area wherein I actually know a thing or two! The matter of whether humanity might someday… or even should… meddle in other creatures on this planet and bestow upon them the debatable “gift” of full sapience — the ability to argue, ponder, store information, appraise, discuss, create, express and manipulate tools, so that they might join us in the problematic task of being worthy planetary managers.
These scribbles were created (as you might guess) as part of an interview.
What first inspired you to write about uplifting?
Some other authors (e.g. H.G. Wells, Pierre Boule, Mary Shelley, and Cordwainer Smith) dealt with this general concept before, but always by assuming the process would be abused — that the humans bestowing this boon would spoil things by enslaving their clients of creations. Of course that is one possible (and despicable) outcome. Those were good “warning” stories with wholesome messages.
But that vein is overworked, so I wondered — what if we someday begin modifying higher animals — and I think we clearly will — guided by the morality of modern liberal society? Filled with hyper-tolerance and eager for diversity? My uplift novels portray a future in which sapient dolphins and apes serve on our councils, offer their own styles of wisdom, art and insight, enriching an Earth civilization that is no longer only human. It’s an attractive outcome…
…but the path to get there is fraught with dangers and moral hazards.
How close do you think we genuinely are, scientifically, to being able to uplift certain species? And is there a scientific imperative to do so?
We are rapidly tracing the genetic mutations that empowered a sub-population of Homo erectus to transform into something theretofore never seen on Planet Earth – or possibly anywhere in the galaxy. It appears that only a few dozen protein and regulatory genes made the crucial difference. Already, some of these alterations are being tried in laboratory mice, so we can better understand some tragic human ailments. There are – at present – rules against doing such insertion experiments on higher creatures like apes. But when the prospect looms closer, can you doubt trials will begin? If it isn’t allowed in the open, western scientific community, then it will happen in secret, elsewhere. Frankly, I’d rather see this realm explored in the open, under relentless transparency and scrutiny, than let it turn into some secret, Michael-Crichton-style excuse for I-Told-You-so regrets.
A recent article in Popular Mechanics: If You Give a Mouse a Human Speech Gene, It Learns Faster. Mice that receive a human version of a speech and language gene display accelerated learning! Don’t expect these findings to lead to a rush of smarter, “uplifted” animals—though they might just reveal something new and fascinating about the evolution of human speech and language.
“What surprised me most was that the humanized gene actually improved the animal’s behavior rather than messing up the system,” says behavioral neuroscientist Kyle Smith. Science writer Charles Q. Choi notes, “The gene for the protein called FOXP2 has been firmly linked to human speech and language. Humans with just one functional copy of this gene experience difficulties in learning and struggle with spoken and written language. The gene itself is not unique—chimps have a version of it. But because the human and chimpanzee lineages diverged roughly 6 million years ago, they don’t have two key changes in amino acids that humans have evolved.”
And so, it begins.
You talk about how ‘many other species on Earth appear to be stuck under a firm glass ceiling’ – can you expand on this?
A while back, we were told that only humans used symbolic speech and tools. Later, it was only dolphins and chimpanzees who could parse simple sentences. In recent years, both rudimentary language skills and tool use have been documented in grey parrots, corvids (ravens), sea lions, elephants, every variety of ape, and even prairie dogs! Some people — admirably empathic folks — have declared that “this means we humans aren’t so special, after all.” And yes, in a sense it does mean that. Certainly, it is right that we expand our respect for Nature’s other wonders and fight to preserve them.
But there is another way to look at this. If so many species — all coming from different directions — appear to have plateaued at about the same level, then it implies that both Darwin and Mother Nature are generous, but only up to a point. “This far, you may rise easily, many of you! But no higher. There is a glass ceiling through which you may not pass!”
Think about it. If so many species achieved rudimentary linguistics and tool use today, would it not have been equally likely for the top-brainy dinosaurs? Were velociraptors equally endowed? Can we ever know? Alas, because none of them managed to put together a space program, all dinosaurs helplessly perished.
No, the lesson from all this is to be even more amazed that humanity pushed through this glass ceiling. Smashed through it, actually, by orders of magnitude! Which then demands of us not to feel overweening pride, but a sense of duty and obligation. To use our titanic brains to benefit the planet, not just ourselves.
But it goes beyond that. If getting past the barrier is rare, then don’t we owe it to our neighbors and cousins to turn around and offer a helping hand?
What are your takes on ethical arguments against uplifting?
Yes, I agree on all counts. And if commencing a program of uplift on, say, Tursiops dolphins would cause all of those things to vanish, then I would say stop. But that is zero-sum thinking. And it is fallacious.
We must preserve and help the bright dolphins and elephants and parrots and sea lions foremost by restoring and expanding their habitats and natural populations. But any uplift project would work only with a small, selected sub-population that would soon be a new and different species, on its own path of destiny. All the richness of the old root stock would be preserved. You can retain the old — and everything worthy of respect — while creating the new.
Likewise, the proclamations that uplift would be typical “human arrogance, playing god,” seem easy to answer. How about typical “human generosity”? Lending a hand to others across nature’s chasm, so they might then join us building starships?
Or so their ingrate teenagers might eloquently blame us for their adolescent angst, sneering “Hey! I didn’t ASK to be this smart!”
The one argument against uplift that I find most compelling is the simplest. Yes, the goal is a beautiful one, to vastly expand the diversity of Earth’s sapience, with dolphin and chimp and bonobo and gorilla and even elephant sages sitting on our councils and sharing unique insights? Great. I portray them having problems, in my novels, but the product is still a lovely dream. (To be clear, while artificial intelligence might be possible, uplifted sapience is demonstrably beyond plausible, even very likely.)
All of that sounds fine. Only… in order to get there, the chosen sub-populations will have to go through generations of awkward fits and starts. No matter how carefully and lovingly we move ahead, there will be some pain. And I can understand folks who declare that they would – on that account alone – oppose uplift, no matter how wondrous the final outcome might be.
In the end? I (very) respectfully disagree. All generations are built for one purpose… the one fine goal that Jonas Salk spoke-of… to be good ancestors. To suffer what we must, for our grandchildren. I can think of no greater function than to sow, so that those descendants may reap.
Dolphin parents make similar choices every day. If they could envision what their heirs might become… the earthly and alien seas they might explore… I think they would volunteer.
Aside from the ethical reasons you’ve presented, what would be the benefits – commercially or scientifically – in doing so?
The oceans of planet Earth are a vast mystery, filled with both physical wealth and unique treasures to preserve. We are trying to learn to be good planetary managers (often stymied by other members of our own, short-sighted species.) But I doubt we could fill that role all by ourselves, anywhere near as well as if sapient dolphin partners (and critics) were by our side. The same holds for countless other opportunities for both profit and wisdom. (I believe that — and portray in stories — descendants of elephants might be the perfect living inhabitants of asteroidal colonies!)
Our biggest danger is not the one preached by Michael Crichton and so many others — human ambition and hubristic pride. No, our biggest danger comes from zero sum thinking. Proclaiming that we cannot seek – and sometimes achieve – the win-win. Doing well while doing good.
What measures can be taken to protect the rights of animals if uplifting as a practice is pursued?
I’ve been a little unkind to Michael Crichton in this interview. But in fact, every single one of his dire-danger scenarios preaches a single valuable lesson, and it is not “don’t do new things.” If you read the books and watch the movies, you soon realize that the true lesson is: “don’t do new things in SECRET.”
The only possible way that uplift, or any other grand project, can be done well is if it is performed in the open, subjected to relentless criticism by opponents who seek out every flaw, every danger and mistake. Only then, ironically, will the project move ahead with some strong chance of minimizing the pain… and maximizing the benefits for all.
Anything else you’d like to say on the matter?
I think you’ll like my novella “Aficionado.” It takes a while to get to the uplift part.
and my article Intelligence, Uplift and Our Place in a Big Cosmos.
Above all, let’s not paint our kids in a corner, binding them to our vows, based on this generation’s obsessions. Those kids will be smarter and better than us. If we make a civilization of decency, tolerance, maturity, thoughtfulness and fun… then they will answer all of these questions better than we slightly advanced cavemen ever could.