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How Will Transhumans View The Natural World? (Part 1) April 8, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology, Ethics, Transhumanism.
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(This is a three part series.  Come back for parts 2 and 3.)

Humans have, shall we say, a “complex” relationship with nature.  While we quite clearly depend on the services provided to us by the various biotic and abiotic forces at work in the world we tend to go about our business perfectly oblivious to that fact.  While we may enjoy having vibrant wilderness around us for aesthetic reasons protecting that wilderness usually takes a rather distant second (if that) on our list of priorities.  The past few decades have seen a huge shift in parts of our collective understanding of our relationship with the natural world but on the whole it seems most humans still view nature as a resource; something to be exploited.

How might transhumans and posthumans differ?  For posthumans the answer is we simply don’t know.  That may sound like a copout but the truth is predicting the actions of such beings would be like a bacterium predicting whether or not a human will have pancakes or waffles for breakfast.  The actions of transhumans on the other hand, who are not nearly so far removed from their human forebears, can be predicted or at least guessed at. It seems likely that transhuman opinions to the environment will fall into the same schools of thought that human opinions have.   Said current human views on the subject can be largely broken down into three viewpoints: anthropocentric, biocentric and ecocentric.

The anthropocentric view is easily the most common one found amongst the general populace.  Simply stated it means that the opinions and needs of humans are either given priority over those of other life or ecosystems or, more commonly, are the only ones considered.  This is also by far the oldest viewpoint.  Looking back through history one is hard pressed to find examples where the anthropocentric view was seriously critiqued, let alone threatened.  The natural world has been seen by governments as a resource with which to strengthen their nation and dominate their rivals, by corporations as a source of profit.

The anthrocentric view is enshrined in one form or another in all the major religions of the world.  The Abrahamic faiths hold the man is God’s highest creation whom the Lord tasked with ” dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth,” a line that can be interpreted as encouraging at best enlightened caretakership and at worst mass exploitation.  The older pagan faiths of Europe, though often holding certain natural features to be sacred, were no where near as nice to the environment as their modern neo-pagan pseudo-successors would have you believe.  Slash and burn agriculture and the kind of environmental degradation that comes with city building were common.  The Dharmic faiths, though often possessing a much kinder view, generally hold humans in a spiritually higher position compared to the rest of the biological world.  Even the Jains, whose practice of ahimsa puts many Western vegetarians to shame, view humans as inherently higher on the ladder of spiritual evolution.

While at first glance adherence to the anthropocentric view seems destined to wreak disaster (and often has) it does not inherently result in destruction and exploitation.  The spreading of environmentalism into the mainstream consciousness, and the inevitable transmutation of it’s fundamental values, have shown that a coherent ethos that values preservation of the natural world can be formed simply within the framework of the human centric view.  Apart from a few fringe leftovers most of the support for movements such as sustainable agriculture and green energy is driven less by a desire to protect endangered species or threatened ecosystems than it are the result of simple economic calculus.  From global warming to the Dust bowl it has become more and more apparent that a society which does not care for the health of it’s natural resources will be unable to care for it’s humans, either due to threats to public health and safety (e.g. increased risks of natural disasters, poisoned water supplies, etc.) or the eroding of sectors (e.g. agriculture) necessary for a strong economic base.  As such it should come as no surprise that this form of “ecosystem management”  (i.e. protect nature to protect people) is the dominant policy of the vast majority of environmentally focused government organizations and private businesses.

Will the anthropocentric school become the transhuman-centric school?  It’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility.  Many of the notable transhuman technologies (intelligence enhancement, anti-aging, etc.) will likely at first be available only to a select, wealthy elite; the kind of people at the height of the power structures whom as already mentioned tend to favor an anthropocentric view.  While it is nice to think that increased intelligence will bring about increased morality there is scarce evidence to support that view.  The first transhumans to rise will (at least to some degree) be a reflection of the beings they evolved from, sharing at least some of the worldview of the originals.

An important question then becomes what place humans have in a transhuman-centric view of nature.  An examination of the outcomes of the anthropocentric view on other species is not encouraging.  In a worldview that considers only how nature benefits a single species all other species are subject to a cost/benefit analysis, an analysis that often has devastating consequences if the species is question is found wanting in benefits and high in cost.  Though other authors have raised the issue of transhumans actively seeking to destroy humanity that need neither be the outcome of a transhuman-centric view nor necessary for the destruction of our species by transhuman hands.  It is very possible that transhumans, without any malice towards us, may wipe us from the face of the earth simply by exploiting resources to a point beyond which humans cannot survive.   This is not out of the realm of possibility since by their very nature transhumans will likely require large amount of resources to sustain their functioning as things like enhanced intelligence, immortality and heightened physical abilities are all expensive traits to keep around.  Just to illustrate this point keep in mind that the human brain takes up a mere 3% or so of body weight but uses roughly 20% of the bodies energy needs.  Now imagine what sort of energy requirements a being with 10, 100, 1000 times the computing power of the human brain will require.  Now consider the costs of  this plus immortality, megascale engineering, ecosystems redesign and the other needs and wants of an entire population of transhumans.   Humans may in the end simply be the victim of transhuman apathy rather than malice.

Of course it is also possible that transhumans will look kindly upon us, perhaps out of fondness for their creators and closest relatives, and seek to keep us around.  The historical precedent for this is, once again, not encouraging.

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Do Plants Feel Pain? February 13, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology, Ethics.
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No.

Okay I’ll expand on that.

A common though ultimately misguided argument against veganism that often crops up whenever the subject is being discussed is that vegans are hypocrites because they don’t care about the suffering of plants.  In practical terms this isn’t so much a logical point as it is an ad hominem but even were it not a fallacy it’s still based on a rather shaky assumption; namely that plants feel pain.

Let me say this right up front.  There is no empirical evidence of plants experiencing a sensation even remotely close to what we call pain.  Pain has a very specific definition that is often lost in the colloquial use of the word.  Simply put, pain is a negative sensation that occurs when an organism has suffered some sort of physical injury.  Pain signals travel from specialized sensors cells in the body, called nociceptors, through the sensory peripheral nervous system and to the brain.  Depending on the nature of the pain the response could be either unconscious, as when you pull your hand off a hot plate without thinking about it, or conscious, as when you stick your hand under freezing ice water for as long as you can on a dare (I know I’m not the only one to do this.)

I’m not sure where the idea that plants feel pain first originated.  The Jain religion of India teaches that all living things have a soul and preaches ahimsa (non-violence) towards all life.  An unusual (for western vegetarians) result of this philosophy is that Jains will abstain from eating root vegetables such as potatoes or onions because the death of the plant is required to harvest it.  However this practice has less to do with reducing suffering than it does respecting life, two very different things.  It may have had some influence on the idea but does not seem to be where it originated.

Sometimes cited as support is the fact that plants are certainly capable of responding to outside stimuli.  Sunflowers are able to move their flowers and track the sun across the sky while tress have been shown to shift nitrogen (important in photosynthesis) to leaves in heavier sunlight.  However from an anatomical and physiological point of view the idea that plants feel pain finds little support.  Plants lack pain receptors that would allow them to experience negative stimulation in the first place as well as lacking both a brain and a nervous system that would be required to analyze and respond to such sensory information.  There does seem to be evidence that plants release hormones after being damaged much in the same way animals will but plant hormones are quite different from those found in animals.  Furthermore this would not be evidence of a pain response in plants but rather an automatic reaction to stimuli.

More damning for the position though is the total lack a reason for plants to have evolved a pain response.  Pain is a useful adaptation for animals because it helps them avoid dangerous situations.  A perfect way to illustrate this is to look at humans born without the ability to feel it.  The condition is called congenital analgesia or congenital insensitivity to pain.  A rare genetic condition the prime symptom of which is the total lack of any ability to experience a pain response.  As you may have been able to guess suffers often do not live long and those that do must be carefully watched.  Broken bones may go untreated or infections unremarked upon if only because they have no reason to be concerned about them.  Without pain there is no reason to pull your hand out of the fire.

So if pain helps animals survive can the same be said for plants.  Of course not.  Lacking any ability to avoid danger if it arises, such as retracting a branch being munched on by an herbivore or uprooting to a new spot during a fire, the development of a pain response system would be an evolutionary waste.  It would add nothing the fitness of the organism (the ability to reproduce) and the resources that would be used to grow it could instead be put into growth and reproduction.   Plants certainly can respond to threats, many species of algae increase their production of defensive chemicals after suffering damage from herbivory, but such things only indicate a response to outside stimuli not pain.

Some objections, though none of them good, can be raised to the position I’ve offered.  One is that any negative experience qualifies as pain.  Since plants are able to respond to stimuli, and therefore must experience it in some way, and some stimuli are certainly negative plants then would be said to experience pain.  This however is conflating two separate issues; the question of panpsychism and the question of suffering.  As shown above it is quite possible for a human to possess the ability to experience while simultaneously lacking the ability to feel pain.  A similar situation is found in those lacking photoreceptors in the eyes (blind) or who have suffered damage to chemoreceptors in the nose (lack of smell).  One could hardly say that a blind person is able to experience sight or a deaf person able to experience sound even though they are certainly able to experience other stimuli for which they have the proper tools.  In a similar vein a computer is clearly able to respond to stimuli such as the introduction of a virus into its software but very few would say that such an event causes the computer any sort pain.

As it currently stands it makes little sense to extend our moral sphere to encompass plants but that does not mean we may ignore the role they have to play.  As primary producers all life on earth ultimately derives from the ability of plants to provide energy for the rest of us.  The continued happiness and prosperity of both us and the rest of the animal kingdom requires the continued health of the ecosystems we share.

In-Vitro Meat: The Future Of Eating January 31, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ethics, Science.
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This isn’t exactly news since this type of research has been going on for awhile now but it’s always nice to see efforts like this getting recognition.

A developmental biologist and tissue engineer, Dr. Mironov, 56, is one of only a few scientists worldwide involved in bioengineering “cultured” meat.

It’s a product he believes could help solve future global food crises resulting from shrinking amounts of land available for growing meat the old-fashioned way … on the hoof.

The benefits to this type of technology are numerous and the article does a good job of explaining them.  First and foremost is the obvious benefit of producing large quantities of meat without the need to slaughter an animal.  No one can argue that the conditions for animals in industrial meat production are appalling nor that the animals clearly suffer in such an environment.   Even on more “traditional” farms which like to boast of how well their animals are treated still end up knocking them out and slitting their throats.

Second is the ecological impact of traditional meat production.

Cultured meat could eventually become cheaper than what Genovese called the heavily subsidized production of farm meat, he said, and if the public accepts cultured meat, the future holds benefits.

“Thirty percent of the earth’s land surface area is associated with producing animal protein on farms,” Genovese said.

“Animals require between 3 and 8 pounds of nutrient to make 1 pound of meat. It’s fairly inefficient. Animals consume food and produce waste. Cultured meat doesn’t have a digestive system.

I’ve heard some people object that these figures aren’t accurate since cows naturally eat grass, which costs nothing for humans to produce and has little ecological impact.  That’s true, cows naturally eat grass, but anyone who’s taken a look at meat production knows that it’s anything but natural.  The vast majority of animals raised for meat consumption (cows, pigs, fish) are fed on corn.  That’s right, they’re feeding corn to fish.

Speaking of natural, many foresee a major stumbling block for in-vitro meat in the public’s new fascination with natural goods.  The idea is that people will be hesitant to eat food grown in a lab.  Considering the furor over genetically modified crops (see Frankenfood) that’s probably not an outrageous assumption.  However this is more a question of branding than an actual problem with the technology.  Keep in mind, farming is a completely unnatural practice yet there aren’t many people returning to the hunter gatherer lifestyle.

Ultimately though what will make or break this technology is the price.  Meat production is expensive and a product that promises all the great taste for half the cost, so to speak, has a good chance at succeeding.  After all, much as many of us would like it not to be so people just like the taste of meat.

Animal Suffering vs. Animal Slavery January 3, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ethics, Transhumanism.
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Are non-humans deserving of rights?  Does husbandry amount to enslavement?  Is animal testing acceptable if it sames human lives?  These questions and others lie at the heart of the debate between animal rights and animal welfare.  More than simply a theoretical discussion it has important implications for not only what place non-humans currently have in our society but how those roles may change in the coming decades.  Though science fiction stories are replete with examples of uplifted species or hybrid splices society at large has yet to consider what our response to such things should be.  One reason for this is that we still haven’t figured out where non-humans fit into our current paradigm.

Though both groups campaign against cruelty to animals there are deep, fundamental differences between them.  The crux of the argument can be summed up by the question of whether or not non-humans can or should possess the same rights we give to our fellow humans.  What rights these are can vary depending on who is being asked the question but the generally include the more familiar ones: the right to live, the right to liberty (or to not be enslaved) and so on.  The short version is that animal rights advocates support this while animal welfare advocates do not.  The slightly longer version is more complicated.

What this debate hinges on (as it appears to me) is the question of personhood.  A person here is defined as a sentient being capable of self-awareness, the ability to contemplate it’s own future and the ability to feel pain.  That last one is arguably the most important as without pain, suffering or something like it becomes very difficult to differentiate between positive and negative experiences.  The animal rights camp, following the works of people like Peter Singer (who oddly enough actually disagrees with a fair amount of their rhetoric) generally believes in extending our circle of personhood to include either some or all of the rest of the animal kingdom.  Note that animal rights groups usually stop at animals and don’t generally push for the rights of plants or ecosystems a la the Deep Ecology movement.  Animal welfarists reject this extension of rights to non-humans out of hand and continue to regard non-humans as non-sentient.

This disagreement leads to drastic differences between two groups that otherwise would seem obvious allies.  Welfarists have no problems with the act of eating meat itself while many rightists advocate veganism.  Rightests condemn, and in some cases sabotage, animal testing while welfarists generally support its use.  Once again, the issue in all of this is one of personhood.  If non-humans are persons than they deserve the rights that we as a society already extend to humans (to do otherwise is speciesism.)  Some of those rights will naturally be the right not to be eaten, not to be experimented on, and not to be imprisoned.  If they are not persons then they are not deserving of any of those.  Thus as God commands in the Old Testament, man shall have dominion over the rest of the natural world.

So who has the stronger argument?  It depends on who you ask but from where I’m standing I’m not sure either one gets it.  The major problem with the welfare approach is that it ignores the fundamental right that all sentient life shares: the freedom not to suffer.  Welfarists may pay lip service to this by advocating the abolition of unnecessary suffering but the question as to what exactly that is is a constantly moving target.  To a welfarist an animal is a tool.  Perhaps a cute tool, one which may provide great service to it’s human masters and which should be kept in the best condition possible, but a tool none-the-less.  The purpose of an animals entire existence lies in what in can provide to mankind; whether that be companionship, testing the next generation of cancer drugs or simply serving to sate a primal urge for dead flesh.

By contrast, animal rightists respect the rights of animals to a fault.  They fully believe that animals should be free from suffering at human hands and attack notions that non-humans exist to serve humankind.  Unfortunately they too lose track of their overriding goal, though they go about it in a manner quite different from the welfarists.  All to often rightists fall into the “Gaia trap,” viewing the natural world in an over-idealized and nostalgic light.  Their position can best be summed up as one of non-interference with the natural world, a sort of “life will find a way” naivety wherein animals are freed from the “tyranny” of human slavery.  There opposition to animal enslavement even extends to companion relationships which, while certainly not without there difficulties, are among the best relationships humans have cultivated.  More importantly this view completely  ignores the horrifying reality of both Darwinian evolution and daily life in the natural world, “red in tooth and claw”, wherein the vast majority of life of those born will eke out a brief, harsh existence of fear and anxiety before meeting their end at the hands, or teeth, of another.

The question of how we treat non-humans is one of the most important debates facing both philosophy and society as a whole.  To those who value the abolition of suffering it is imperative that we choose the right approach.  Neither the welfarist nor the rightist approach will do and as such a third is needed.  Call it animal guardianship.  Call it the quest for Eden.  Or perhaps, just call it the Hedonistic Imperative.

Hedonistic Imperative Slowly Moves into the Mainstream December 5, 2010

Posted by Metabiological in Ethics, Transhumanism.
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David Pearce’s Hedonistic Imperative has arguably been one of the most influential ideas within transhumanism.  Even those who don’t support it, and there are many that don’t, can’t help but respect both the scale of the vision and the intellectual vigor behind it.  For myself reading it the first time was an eyeopener.  As a young atheist I had been unimpressed by the ethical stance of the various humanist organizations which seemed to go about the business of ethics without any definition of what constitutes “good” or “evil”.  HI not only provided an ethical framework (negative utilitarianism) that was well-grounded in philosophy but a vision of a better world that rivaled and even surpassed the dreams of paradise espoused by the world’s religions.

As such I am always happy to see these views break into the mainstream.  Jeff McMahan’s article in the New York Times “The Meat Eaters” was groundbreaking in this regard and now we have Oscar Horta’s publication.  Horta’s work, which deals with the problems associated with species reintroduction, strikes particularly close to home for me as an ecologist in training.  It is a complex problem and one that according to Horta we are not going about in the right way.

His article asks the question of whether or not it is moral to reintroduce carnivores, in this case wolves, into their former range.  The ecological argument is that top predators help to stabilize the ecosystem and prevent major changes in community structure that can occur through over-grazing.  This is not a controversial statement in ecology with the spread of sea otters into former ranges along the California coast arguably being the best example of it.  Horta attacks not only the ecological argument of reintroduction but also questions the moral hypocrisy implicit in such a policy.

I won’t go in depth into his arguments since you can and should read it for yourself but I will tell you that some of his arguments are very impressive, particularly those against the deep ecology crowd.  The take home from this is that while he calls into question our current interventions he does not call for them to stop but only to be modified.  Nature is not good simply because it is nature and intervention is not bad for simply being an intervention.  When used properly, such as in the reduction of suffering in the natural world, it can be one of our most powerful tools.

Is Exercise a Moral Imperative? November 27, 2010

Posted by Metabiological in Ethics.
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Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat, I’m a negative utilitarian.  For those who don’t know what that is here’s the short version: that which decreases suffering in the world is good, that which increases it is bad.  NU is an offshoot of the broader utilitarian tradition that began with Bentham (or Epicurus if you want to have that debate.)  It’s an ethical system that I came to a number of years ago and have followed quite strictly.  The reason I’m telling you this is because in following it has led me to some rather strange places.

If you have so much as a passing fancy in the philopsophy of ethics than you know that one of the most infuriating things about it for the lay person is the seemingly crazy positions a well followed through logical agrument can take you too.  Arguably the most famous for NU is the well worn criticism that the quickest way to eliminate suffering would be to wipe out the human race.  No people, no suffering.  This seemingly crazy position is the direct outcome of NU thought and has been used as a reductio ad absurdum by more than one critic (I personally believe there’s a way around it but that’s a discussion for another time.)  There are however more shall we say “everyday crazy” positions that adherence to an ethical code can lead us to.  One of them for me has been veganism.  Another came to me just the other day.

First the set up.  Health care costs are rising throughout the developed world due.  One of the primary reasons is the costs associated with treating the primary killers in the developed world.  These primary killers, such as heart disease and diabetes, can be largely prevented through proper lifestyle choices.  Increased health care costs place a great burden on society as whole and the poor in particular leading to an increase in suffering.   Starting from these assumptions we would seem, from an NU perspective, to have a moral obligation to keep ourselves in shape.

I’m under no illusions that this will not strike most people as insane.  Hell I thought it was loony when it first came to me and as I’ve already stated I’m a staunch utilitarian.  Unfortunately the more I think about it the more the logic seems sound.  If we value the elimination of suffering we seem to be bound to this course.

Now undoubtably there are many objections that could be raised to this.  One obvious one is that time spent exercising could be spent performing other activities.  If those other activities would reduce suffering more than exercise we would be bound to perform them instead.  Another may be that our individual actions will have no effect on the larger problem (a charge often leveled at veganism and the question of animal suffering.)   These are certainly valid criticisms but none of them strike me as fatal blows.

It goes without saying that most people, whether they accept the logic or not, will never view exercise as moral.  We as a species are quite good at not doing things we don’t want to even if we believe them to be right.  One need only compare the values expressed by the world’s various religions with the way worshipers actually live their lives (not to overly pick on religion as I am quite guilty of this myself.)  I am not attempting some underhanded way to motivate people to exercise.  My reason for writing this is much simpler.

One of the joys I find with following an ethical system is the continuing process of determining how one should live.  Too often we drift through life never considering the morality of the actions we perform.   Ask most people why they do the things they do and you’ll likely get nothing but blank stares.  To know the foundation on which your beliefs are based, even if those beliefs seem odd at first glance, is a wonderful feeling.  Or to put it another way:

“The unexamined life is not worth living”   – Socrates –