BLTC Research logo Animal Rights

The Post-Darwinian Transition

"There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root"
Henry David Thoreau

Within the next few centuries, a quite startling option will become technically feasible. Nanotechnology and genetic-engineering will allow us to abolish the biological substrates of suffering in all sentient life. The unpleasant forms of consciousness are set to pass into evolutionary history. Potentially, unhappiness and all its vestiges will become biologically obsolete.

         Bombastic fantasy? Like most predictions of events further than a few years ahead, prophecy of this nature all sounds rather fanciful. In reality, how likely are we ever to implement a biological blueprint for universal bliss?

         The Hedonistic Imperative outlines why and how tomorrow's biotechnologists will be equipped to practise systematic paradise-engineering. Its consequences will be of a beauty and a grandeur that we can scarcely begin to comprehend. Here, a more narrow issue will be discussed. If we do decide biologically to naturalise the sublime, will we consider it ethical to sustain in other species the barbarities of Darwinian regime we've chosen to abandon ourselves? Is it likely that any notion of ethical progress will end when we've liberated members only of our own particular race from the gene-driven malaise of the past? Or instead, mercifully, will a serotonergically enriched capacity for empathy incalculably deepen our compassion for the sufferings of others, while a genetically amped-up "dopaminergic overdrive" propels post-humanity's cross-species biological rescue-job into the Post-Darwinian Era? In the latter scenario, our descendants in the transitional phase are likely to be vastly more moral as well as happier than us. This is because they will be capable of both a greater empathy and a greater capacity to act upon it. Such parameters are genetically tunable; and can be drastically enhanced. So what are the odds of this happening? Are we stuck with the selfishness of a Machiavellian ape from the African savannah until the end of time; or is something else better in store?

         First, consider how we might react if we discovered an extraterrestrial civilisation of organic creatures, let's call them Ecstatics. Their geneticists long ago banished the biological substrates of extreme anguish and everyday malaise alike. Ecstatic life is utterly wonderful. Gradients of well-being animate how they think and act; unpleasantness has simply been written out of the script. Their whole existence is endlessly exciting and profoundly fulfilling, day and night. Ecstatics think of physical and mental pain as bestial hangovers from evolutionary history. More commonly, they find it hard to conceptualise such severe mental illness at all.

        Let us suppose that these angelically happy super-beings aren't electrode-studded wireheads hooked up to pleasure-machines. So they don't spend their lives like lever-pressing laboratory rats, frantically practising intra-cranial self-stimulation. Nor are they dull-witted opiated dupes of a ruling elite a la Huxley's Brave New World. These are the two simple-minded scenarios typically evoked by the prospect of getting rid of life's nastiness; and they tend to exhaust our normal range of imaginative possibilities if asked to evaluate what eternal happiness would amount to on earth. Instead, Ecstatics are genetically pre-programmed to enjoy rapturous states of consciousness throughout every day of their lives. Joy is a background precondition of daily existence. Their everyday textures of awareness have a diversity, intensity and sublimity which our own human legacy wetware cannot normally glimpse, still less sustain. The rock-bottom baseline of Ecstatic mental health still ensures that each moment of their lives comes as an exhilarating revelation. Boredom is neurologically impossible. Moreover, Ecstatics aren't merely happier than DNA-driven emotional primitives from the Darwinian era. They enjoy biologically enriched neural substrates of motivation too. Thus Ecstatics are driven by a willpower far stronger than anything of which contemporary humans are physiologically capable. So they don't sit around all day in a contented zombified stupor. On the contrary, their raw dynamism and irrepressible appetite for life far exceeds our own.

         Now what sort of arguments might we try and use to convince Ecstatics that they should restore, or create, a taste of the suffering and everyday discontents that pervade our own late-DNA world? How might we explain and justify any potentially ennobling and life-enriching properties which [we sometimes tell ourselves] unpleasant modes of consciousness often possess; and which Ecstatics are in danger of forgetting? Would we try and compel them to rewire their minds for genetically predisposed suffering - for their own good, naturally. Or is the very idea itself monstrous?

        Ecstatics themselves, we may suppose, regard experiential nastiness of any kind as coarsening, brutalising, and pornographic. Their ancestors abandoned such obscenities a long time ago. So how might we persuade them that their intuitions of unnatural obscenity and immorality are wrong? What valuable but nasty properties precisely might we identify within our own mode of existence that richly fulfilled Ecstatic lives were lacking? We may suppose that, for their part, Ecstatics treat our reluctance to share irresistible happiness as part of a hereditary, mood-congruent thought-disorder. Have they committed a terrible collective mistake? If we argue the case for traditional life's fitful mayhem and misery over the new gene-driven paradise, could we be rationally confident we were acting as anything nobler than vehicles - and byzantine mouthpieces - for selfish DNA?

         Perhaps; but it's not easy to show how.

         Ecstatic aliens are science-fiction, to the best our knowledge at any rate. By contrast, the impending need to justify suffering - as and when opting to retain its neural mechanisms becomes a life-style choice rather than brute biological fate - isn't fictional at all. Of course, the idea that something as apparently inevitable as suffering will ever require ideological justification may seem a cruel joke today. The textures of unpleasantness are integral to our lives and even our loves. Yet as we understand and progressively manipulate the substrates of mood and emotion, we will need, sooner or later, to defend the deliberate infliction or conservation of their nastier modes of operation in others. For it will be late-/post-humans who decide when, where and how other life-forms will suffer. And if we aren't prepared to tolerate such tampering with our own or anyone else's DNA-driven psychophysiology, then we will need to think hard about what laws or other punitive sanctions to use against people who do want eternal happiness. A cry of "Just say no!" probably won't prove discouragement enough to stop them.

         Realistically, the use of systematic coercion to enforce legacy-Darwinism is unlikely to work indefinitely. Ethics aside, that's one pragmatic reason why it shouldn't be tried. Yet if life-long super-ecstasy is genetically codeable [as, of course, would be life-long tortured hellishness or depression; for there are solutions to the (generalised) Universal Schrodinger Equation which make Auschwitz look like a fun-filled utopia], should the unprecedented well-being it delivers become the hereditary birthright of only a single trans-human super-species? Or should it be zoologically universalised? In centuries ahead, should we intervene in the rest of the living world to rescue its entrapped life-forms from the "natural" horrors of which they are the helpless and blameless victims? Or should we just leave them to it? Is there anything morally wrong with applying nanotechnology and genetic engineering systematically to reorder the natural world so that it's a fabulous place to live for the whole lot of us? Or is this sheer hubris, since selfish DNA makes a morally better world than anything conscious mind can engineer by design? What are the arguments for and against creating a naturalised heaven-on-earth for all our fellow creatures, and all our states of consciousness?

         Such questions today have a pronounced air of unreality. Doesn't this guy have a job? If getting rid of human suffering sounds wild, scrapping animal suffering, too, sounds positively flaky. Actually, the moral argument for abolishing non-human animal suffering as the technical obstacles come to seem less mountainous is stronger than for humans. For at least sophistical arguments can be concocted to justify the need for obligate human malaise. One will be told how it builds the character, ennobles the spirit, and leads to great works of art and literature etc, though if one listened to some critics of the prospect of universal happiness, one might be forgiven for supposing that humanity's consuming passion was producing great literary classics, not pursuing money, power, drugs, and sex. Yet animal suffering is not character-building, nor does it lead to life-affirming works of art etc. It is just nasty and pointless. The nearest it gets to mimicking any kind of Meaning is the way it serves as though it had the purpose of helping self-replicating DNA to leave more copies of itself. But that's as far as it goes. It's not good for anything but some twisted bits of DNA. So the case for abolishing unpleasantness in animals is at least as compelling as it is for humans once mature biotechnology turns its abolition into an implementation-problem rather than a harebrained philosopher's fantasy.

         But won't a world without traditional predatory carnivores in all their bloody and savage glory be less diverse and therefore more boring? Aren't cats cool?

         The boredom issue is a gigantic red herring. If we wanted to, future neuroscientists could make a lifetime spent watching grass grow into a nailbiting psychological cliffhanger; although, as it happens, no such contrivances will be needed. Stripped of its predisposing genes and neuronal substrates, boredom will become physiologically inaccessible to anyone. Its peculiar vapid texture was just a phase certain forms of early DNA life went through. The particular kinds of neural negative feedback mechanism which boredom reflects will become obsolescent too. By contrast, everything in the post-Darwinian world will be much more vividly intense than today's "normal" life. Moreover, as a bonus, naturalised biological paradise will be a far more richly differentiated place too. For we've scarcely even begun to explore the galaxy of wonderful experiences it's possible to savour and delight in. These won't be only the sparkling deliverances of newly-engineered senses. They'll include new modes of introspection and meditative consciousness extending way beyond the shallow reveries of anything neurochemically accessible today, even by the deepest-dyed mystic. Natural selection previously stopped us accessing these outlandish modes of experience. This is because coding for their substrates would have involved either occupying, or crossing, maladaptive gaps in the genetic fitness landscape. For now, however, we're stuck unwittingly ringing the changes in our own mediocre repertoire.

         It's true that the post-Darwinian world won't be maximally diverse. There won't be any suicidal despair, jealousy, bubonic plague or child-abuse. Moreover if we did want to maximise ecological diversity, we could breed creatures that naturally prey on humans. For if we arrange matter and energy in the right way, it's feasible to design obligate predators who can thrive only on human flesh. But who cares? What's the point? The absence both of vileness and the mundane deformations of consciousness which we presently take for granted would be morally bad only if diversity were inherent good. But it's only good today insofar as it stops hyper-dopaminergic novelty-seekers from getting bored. When boredom is impossible, and bliss biologically ubiquitous, then why adulterate perfection with ugliness?

         For his part, DeGrazia is right, I think, to argue for the intellectual incoherence of many of our traditional intuitions. He is also right to argue that we must radically change our attitude to non-humans. Yet then - understandably perhaps - his intellectual nerve fails. He falls back on a conventional conservatism when contemplating the fate of victims of the primeval Darwinian order.

         Until recently, it's true, the only appropriate response after absolving oneself of any direct personal complicity in the suffering of other life-forms has indeed been been to leave things to Nature. The trouble is that this approach amounts to a far less benign solution than its soothing verbal formulation suggests. Urban-dwelling animal activists are, on the whole, far too romantic about the natural world. With our cloistered, media-filtered conception of the Great Outdoors, we implicitly rely on a filter of sanitised wildlife programmes to tell us what the animal kingdom is supposedly all about.

        In fact, Nature documentaries are mostly travesties of real life. They entertain and edify us with evocative mood-music and travelogue-style voice-overs. They impose significance and narrative structure on life's messiness. Wildlife shows have their sad moments, for sure. Yet suffering never lasts very long. It is always offset by homely platitudes about the balance of Nature, the good of the herd, and a sort of poor-man's secular theodicy on behalf of Mother Nature which reassures us that it's not so bad after all.

         That's a convenient lie. If you had just gone through the horror of seeing your loved one eaten alive by a predator, or die slowly of thirst, you would find such clich├ęs empty. Yet in Nature this kind of thing happens all the time. It's completely endemic to the prevailing red-in-tooth-and-claw Darwinian regime. Lions kill their targets primarily by suffocation; which will last minutes. The wolf pack may start eating their prey while the victim is still conscious, though hamstrung. Sharks and the orca basically eat their prey alive; but in sections for the larger prey, notably seals. An analogous scenario in which intelligent extraterrestrial naturalists turned the stylised portrayal of our death-agonies into a lyrical spectacle for popular home entertainment is repugnant. Yet as long as we revel in the production of animal snuff-movies in the guise of wildlife documentaries, that is often the role we play in the tragic lives of photogenic members of other species here on earth.

        There is, of course, a danger in harping on about the terrible extent of suffering indigenous to Nature. One runs the risk that such accounts may be used by hunters and non-obligate meat-eaters as a license for our massively adding to the savageries which already exist. It's simply the way of the world, we are told. There's so much suffering around already that increasing it a bit won't make much difference.

         This sort of cavalier attitude to the fate of others is morally catastrophic. Any reversion to the traditional cruelties of a primordial selfish-DNA regime after abolishing its ghastly late-industrial culmination would amount to a calculated act of barbarism - possessing all the ecological naturalism of a heritage-industry theme-park without any of its redeeming folksiness.

        This passive abdication of responsibility - directed at humans it would be called culpable neglect - is still a popular option among animal advocates. It is encouraged even though Nature is so often frightfully cruel - in its effects though not through some purposive malevolence. Nature is nasty not because most creatures have the sophisticated theory of mind and higher-order intentionality required to encompass human-style sadism. The reason is merely that natural selection has placed no check at all on how bad suffering can be wherever its existence - or any behavioural capacity associated therewith - has let some gene coalitions leave more copies of themselves than others. Encephalising horrific modes of experience so they get conditionally activated is a very effective way of spurring living vehicles to behave in ways likely to maximise the inclusive fitness of their DNA. It's utterly vicious and compelling. But life doesn't have to be like that.

        It is only quite recently that a strategy for genetically engineering the complete abolition of aversive experience in humans has even been mooted - let alone a strategy extending the rescue-mission to non-human animals. But then it is only quite recently that earthly blueprints for its biological implementation could be devised.

        Happily, a completely unprecedented revolution is in the offing. First, the option of worldwide genetically preprogrammed sublimity is no longer technically inconceivable. Scrapping the root of all evil in its biochemical manifestation is winning acknowledgement as at least a theoretical possibility; even though the prospect is typically regarded as wild and eccentric. Certainly, the mass-use use of long-acting depot contraceptives, cross-species retroviral gene therapy, self-reproducing micro-miniaturised nano-robots with supercomputer processing power and therapeutic bioengineering capabilities, etc, all sounds outrageously sci-fi - certainly not practical politics today. Yet this credibility-gap may close quite abruptly. The call for worldwide paradise-engineering isn't an empty plea for new physics, biological wonder-tissue or superluminal warp-drives. At first, of course, the family of ideas underlying the whole post-Darwinian enterprise will seriously occupy the minds of only the [currently-defined] scientific and political fringe. The technical challenges posed by abolishing all of what's wrong with the world are far less formidable than the alteration in mind-set needed to plan the post-Darwinian biological project in the first instance. Yet as meta-paradigm-shifts go, getting rid of aversive experience isn't conceptually difficult. Paradoxically, it's the tender-minded people who care most about animals who are also the folk likely to be most appalled at the hard-headedness required to implement the indefinitely sustainable psychological and physical well-being in prospect for life on earth. Gung-ho testosterone-driven technophiles, on the other hand, are less likely to care about the suffering of lesser creatures which their own personal technical expertise makes preventable. The conservatism of the tender-minded is understandable; but profoundly reactionary. If triumphant, its living victims will continue to be sacrificed on the altar of a Mother Nature whose existence in rose-tinted guise has no place outside the romantic imaginations of its creators. For if our cars and computers should be precision-engineered, then why shouldn't the biomolecular architecture of consciousness? Well-being is too important to be left to selfish DNA.

        DeGrazia, in discussing our alleged lack of positive obligations to animals, uses the pejorative phrase "meddle with nature" (p277) Certainly, if trying to subvert the biological status quo meant starving the lion to save the gazelle, it is mostly futile. Preventing suffering for the one is effectively causing suffering to the other. (The situation of obligate predators such as cats is very different from omnivorous humans. Indeed, as DeGrazia aptly notes, "while many steak-loving humans like to regard themselves as part of this vast chain of carnivorousness, they neglect the fact that omnivores do not need meat to survive with good health. Indeed, overall, meat may do us more harm than good")

        Yet a much more revolutionary imagination is needed. DeGrazia simply doesn't entertain the possibility that genetic-engineering might enable us to abolish all aversive experience and replace the monotony of the hedonic treadmill with a fabulous diversity of enjoyable states. His implicit conservatism is perhaps understandable: the notion of a race of beings who are animated wholly by pleasure gradients is - for now at any rate - a figment of otherworldly dreamers, in spite of its biotechnical feasibility, and - as millennial global species-projects go - technical simplicity. It's worth recalling that physicists and visionary AI buffs routinely discuss proposals far more exotic. Huxley's static and dystopian vision of Brave New World - where the chemically-tranquillised masses were all sedated and opiated dupes of the power elite - has had the unfortunate effect of asphyxiating professional scholarly thought and political action on the immense range of paradise-engineering options in prospect.

        A host of down-to-earth practical objections to making paradise happen do of course spring to mind. Suffering might seem too widespread and diverse in the animal kingdom ever to be eliminated altogether. Inside the ghetto of malaise, its modes can sometimes seem infinitely varied. We can readily understand how a fellow creature can be always in some way unhappy or in pain - most of us know someone whose life is spent in such a state. The idea that the reverse condition is ubiquitously feasible - that each of us could always feel happy and gloriously well - initially strikes us as bizarre.

        Yet our intuitions are utterly misplaced. We elevate one generic yet parochial feature of consciousness, albeit a feature which has pervasively innervated the mammalian neocortex thanks to evolution - to the status of timeless feature of the world. Moreover the idea that the only way to ensure perpetual happiness would be to turn us into incapacitated wireheads is no more realistic than the correlative notion that the only way to make someone perpetually miserable would be to implant electrodes into their pain centres. Alas, this simply isn't the case.