Perhaps a little cognitive boost could help threatened creatures take better advantage of their environments, easing the constant struggle for survival. Or maybe it would enrich their lives in other ways, fostering more complex kinds of communication or even new kinds of animal culture.
The possibilities can sound downright rosy, but they also place us in tricky ethical territory. Humans can volunteer for neural augmentation and tell us which new skills and senses they might like to have. Animals can’t do that.
The proposal to uplift animals is “a kind of benevolent colonialism,” says Paul Graham Raven, a futures researcher at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom who opposes the idea. “In the vast majority of cases, people arguing for animal uplift really do have the very best intentions. But it involves assuming that you’re in a position to judge” what’s best for another species.
It’s “hubris,” Raven says, to assume that other animals would be better off if their minds were more like ours, and it’s not a given that cognitive enhancement would actually improve their day-to-day experience. What kind of life would an uplifted chimpanzee actually have? “It would be a long sentence of imprisonment,” Raven says, “and not just imprisonment within a laboratory but imprisonment of a human mind in a nonhuman body in a nonhuman culture in which it was not raised.”
There’s also the distinct possibility, Chan acknowledges, that humans will use and abuse enhanced animals, treating them in ways that “fail to respect their intelligence.” Or what if an extra-intelligent creature comes to realize the not always pleasant role that nonhuman animals play in our society? What if a cow comes to discover that many of its brethren end up in slaughterhouses?
At its most extreme , animal uplift could transform the balance of power among species on Earth, an idea that has an obvious downside for humans, but would represent an enormous advance for animal rights. Turbocharging the minds of certain creatures—such as apes, elephants, and dolphins—could allow these species to advocate for themselves and their future.
“If they start to become active members of the broader community, a pan species community, where they’re actually able to articulate and fight for their rights, that would be pretty profound,” Dvorsky says.
Uplifted apes could lobby on behalf of all apes, for instance, pushing to outlaw their use in research. A subpopulation of cognitively gifted elephants could rally for better protections for the world’s elephants. And enhanced animals could take the evolution of their species into their own hands, deciding whether they’d like to pursue further cognitive modifications.
It’s a radical idea, Dvorsky acknowledges: “I have trouble wrapping my head around it.”
The potential rise of a class of sapient nonhuman animals wouldn’t be easy for society to accept, even if the science were possible. Indeed, whenever the discussion of animal enhancement moves from specialist circles into the mainstream, comment threads fill up with references to movies like “Planet of the Apes” and warnings that smart animals might eventually overthrow humans.
It’s an extreme and fantastical scenario, to be sure, but it remains a culturally potent one. Animals capable of engaging with us on a more equal footing would be an enormous threat to our sense of human exceptionalism—and the notion that human life is uniquely valuable. “Animals that have human capacities in some way challenge us to think more about what it is we find special and valuable in humans,” Chan says. “And I think most people are not very comfortable with anything that challenges the easy idea that if you’re human, you’re in the club and if you’re not human, you’re out.”
Of course, the prospect of sharing the planet with entire species of animals with human-like brains remains remote—even if the feat proves technically possible, it’s not clear whether society will sanction it. (For his part, Raven thinks we should be spending less time worrying about enhancing animals, and more time figuring out how to ensure that all humans have access to equal opportunities. “Then you can come back to me and say, ‘Well what about the apes?’ ”)
But as the research shows, the opportunity to offer animals at least modest cognitive boosts will be here sooner than most of us realize. And Chan says animal uplift is worth mulling over even if we know we’ll never create a race of enhanced dolphins.
The fact that such a thought experiment worries us—that we might have something to fear if dolphins get the vote or if cows suddenly realize what’s happening to them—suggests something clearly to Chan and other scholars: that we might want to consider the way we treat animals now, regardless of their intelligence.Continued...