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FOOLS’ ERRAND: If We Can Make Animals Smarter, Should We?

Daniel Povinelli: We can improve the lives of animals right now, whether it be to release captive monkeys or end factory farming, without some bizarre transformations of their brains.

SHAYLA LOVE: In pockets of the real world, bioethicists, philosophers, futurists, and transhumanists are contemplating in a serious manner what it might mean for animals to make gains in intelligence, whether through deliberate human intervention or by accident. Rise of the Planet of the Apes no longer require large leaps of imagination. Advances in scientific research have resulted in the occasional tinkering with animal cognition… Whether you regard animal uplift as a science fiction fantasy, a bioethical concern, or an impending moral decision, the concept forces us to ask some interesting questions about the nature of intelligence, its promises and perils…

What are the consequences of an animal becoming cognitively enhanced? Are humans biased when they think it’s a gift to deliver an intelligence more like our own to another species? As we enter a scientific era where these modulations might be possible, how can we tell if an animal has gotten smarter, even minutely so? As such, animal uplift is a lens through which to examine what our values around intelligence are, what facets of life we fear and want to eliminate, and how we determine our relationship with the other creatures we share this planet with…

These questions will need to be addressed sooner than the general population may realize: Genetic modification, cognitive enhancements, and human-animal brain hybrids are technologies that are already in progress, said George Dvorsky, a Canadian bioethicist, transhumanist, futurist, and frequent commenter on animal uplift. “All these things are fairly inevitable. There’s nothing from a scientific or biological perspective that would preclude their existence”… Transhumanists will often reference a series of science fiction novels on animal uplift by David Brin, because his books don’t imagine a dystopian uplifted future. In his world, humans and uplifted animals exist together as equals, each contributing their unique qualities to society…

Michael Hauskeller, a professor of philosophy at the University of Liverpool, regards animal uplift as a fantasy. “But what’s interesting for me are the reasons that are being used to justify thinking about this, and urging us to find ways of doing it,” he said. Animal uplift can push us to define concepts that are fuzzy around the edges, like intelligence. Intelligence isn’t just one thing, and so uplift forces us to dissect it and explain what it is. What facets of intelligence would you consider it ethically OK to endow another species with? Why? Would that trait be an objectively good one, or would it just be something that humans value, that a monkey, pig, or rat would have no use for?…

Daniel Povinelli, a biologist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said that uplift can actually reveal more about those advocating for it than it can about cognition or the future. He thinks a bias is built into the word “uplift” itself—it assumes that we, humans, are on top of some kind of hierarchy, and bringing animals “up” to our level. Povinelli has studied animal intelligence for decades, and was involved in research in the late 1990s (which was never fully carried out) that tried to raise nonhuman primates as if they were humans, to see if they could learn human qualities, like language…

In that regard, Povinelli said there are ways we can improve the lives of animals right now — whether it be to release captive monkeys and chimpanzees or end factory farming. We can do those things immediately, “without worrying about, Oh wait, we’re going to somehow do some bizarre transformations of their brains in order to make their lives better”… “If you take animals seriously, you would take them seriously on their own terms,” he said. “The idea that we can only take them seriously if they’re more like us is a pervasive thing.”  SOURCE…

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