Source: IO9
Date: August 2014

Engineering Compassionate Ecosystems

io9's George Dvorsky interviews David Pearce

io9: 1. - The idea of re-engineering the ecosystem such that it's free from suffering is a radically ambitious project — one that's been referred to as the "well intentioned lunacy" of futurists. That said, it's an idea rooted in history. From where do you draw your ideas and moral philosophy?

DP: Sentient beings shouldn't harm each other. This utopian-sounding vision is ancient. Gautama Buddha said "May all that have life be delivered from suffering". The Bible prophesies that the wolf and the lion shall lie down with the lamb. Today, Jains sweep the ground in front of their feet rather than unwittingly tread on an insect.

My own conceptual framework and ethics are secular - more Bentham than Buddha. I think we should use biotechnology to rewrite our genetic source code; recalibrate the hedonic treadmill; shut down factory farms and slaughterhouses; and systematically help sentient beings rather than harm them.

However, there is an obvious problem. On the face of it, the idea of a pain-free biosphere is ecologically illiterate. Secular and religious utopians tend to ignore the biology of obligate carnivores and the thermodynamics of a food chain. Feed a population of starving herbivores in winter and we'd trigger a population explosion and ecological collapse. Help carnivorous predators and we'd just cause more death and suffering to the herbivores they prey on. Richard Dawkins puts the bioconservative case quite bluntly: "It must be so". Fortunately, this isn't the case.

io9: It's often said that predators (and most animals for that matter) fall outside our ethical purview and that we need to perceive them as amoral creatures. So what's the problem with predators? And why should humans involve themselves to this degree in the ecosystem's inner workings?

DP: Humans already massively "interfere" with Nature in countless ways ranging from uncontrolled habitat-destruction to captive breeding programs for big cats to "rewilding". Within the next few decades, every cubic metre of the planet will be computationally accessible to surveillance, micro-management and control. On current trends, most large nonhuman terrestrial vertebrates will be extinct outside our wildlife parks by mid-century. So the question arises. What principle(s) should govern our stewardship of the rest of the living world? How many of the traditional horrors of "Nature, red in tooth and claw" should we promote and perpetuate? Alternatively, insofar we want to preserve traditional forms of Darwinian life, should we aim for an ethic of compassionate stewardship instead. Cognitively, nonhuman animals are akin to small children. They need caring for as such.

Getting rid of predation isn't a matter of moralising. A python who kills a small human child isn't morally blameworthy. Nor is a lion who hunts and kills a terrified zebra. In both cases, the victim suffers horribly. But the predator lacks the empathetic and mind-reading skills needed to understand the implications of what s/he is doing. Some humans still display a similar deficit. From the perspective of the victim, the moral status or (lack of) guilty intent of a human or nonhuman predator is irrelevant. Either way, to stand by and watch the snake asphyxiate a child would be almost as morally abhorrent as to kill the child yourself. So why turn this principle on its head with beings of comparable sentience and sentience to human infants and toddlers? With power comes complicity. For better or worse, power over the lives of all sentient beings on the planet is now within our grasp.

Inevitably, critics talk of "hubris". Humans shouldn't "play God". What right have humans to impose our values on members of another race or species? The charge is seductive but misplaced. There is no anthropomorphism here, no imposition of human values on alien minds. Human and nonhuman animals are alike in an ethically critical respect. The pleasure-pain axis is universal to sentient life. No sentient being wants to be harmed - to be asphyxiated, dismembered, or eaten alive. The wishes of a terrified toddler or a fleeing zebra to flourish unmolested are not open to doubt even in the absence of the verbal capacity to say so.

io9: Predators play an invaluable role in the world's ecosystems. Upsetting this balance could have disastrous consequences. How does your plan for a predator-free Earth deal with these constraints? And how do you distinguish between selective extinction strategies and reprogramming?

DP: Carnivorous predators keep populations of herbivores in check. Plasmodium-carrying species of the Anopheles mosquito keep human populations in check. In each case, a valuable ecological role is achieved at the price of immense suffering and the loss of hundreds of millions of lives. What's in question isn't the value of the parasite or predator's ecological role, but whether intelligent moral agents can perform that role better. On some fairly modest assumptions, fertility regulation via family planning or cross-species immunocontraception is a more civilised and compassionate policy option than famine, predation and disease. The biggest obstacle to a future of compassionate ecosystems is the ideology of traditional conservation biology - and unreflective status quo bias.

The distinction between selective extinction and genetic reprogramming is not clear-cut. It's still useful. All but most ardent conservationists and advocates of the status quo would prefer to see the Anopheles mosquito extinct in the wild - or at least rendered harmless. By common consent, humanity should aim to wipe out malaria world-wide. No doubt fewer human and nonhuman animals will sicken and die in consequence, putting further strain on the environment. But access to family planning in the human population of sub-Saharan African can be improved too. In the long run, editing out of the human genome the terrible sickle-cell allele that confers partial resistance to malaria should be feasible too.

However, the idea of allowing predatory species of iconic vertebrate to go extinct usually elicits a different response from the idea of phasing out a mosquito - regardless of the suffering they cause. Most city-dwelling suburbanites are aghast at the thought of a world without free-living lions or tigers and other "charismatic mega-fauna".

I'm not personally convinced that we need such predatory species to survive in any shape or form - not even genetically "reprogrammed" to be harmless to their usual victims. But let's assume otherwise. Can the twin principles of conservation biology and compassionate ecosystem design be reconciled? In principle, yes. If we really want to preserve free-living crocodiles, snakes and tigers and deliver a cruelty-free biosphere, then the carnivorous members of tomorrow's wildlife parks will need to be genetically and behaviourally tweaked - with neurochips, GPS tracking and abundance of other high-tech safeguards to prevent accidents.

In the case of unpredated herbivorous populations that would otherwise explode, cross-species fertility regulation via immununocontraception will be a cheap, effective and low-tech option.

Critics may protest that a lion who eats catnip-flavour cultured meat, or a tiger who has been genetically tweaked to enjoy a vegetarian diet, is no longer "truly" a lion or a tiger. Exactly the same argument could be made for contemporary Homo sapiens. Thus Nature "designed" archaic male humans to be hunters / warriors. If we start wearing clothes, cure deadly genetic diseases, quit harming nonhuman animals, and stop killing each other, have we thereby lost some vital part of our "species essence"? And if so, would it matter? Likewise with lions and herbivores. Why confine the civilising process to a single ethnic group or species? Taxonomic abstractions don't literally have interests, only individual sentient beings.

io9: How granular and total does this project need to be? Must we eliminate all predation? And to what extent are we talking about — like, even insects and parasites? Needless to say, we're going to require extremely sophisticated technologies to pull this off. But we're already developing precursor technologies to the ones you describe, including CRISPR-Cas9 and the concept of gene drives (which has some people already talking about the imperative to reduce mosquito populations). Looking ahead to the future, what other technologies will we need to fulfil this project?

DP: In the long run, there is nothing to stop intelligent agents identifying the molecular signature of experience below hedonic zero and eliminating it altogether - even in insects. Nociception is vital; pain is optional. I tentatively predict that the world's last unpleasant experience in our forward light-cone will be a precisely datable event - perhaps some micro-pain in an obscure marine invertebrate a few centuries hence.

The well-being of large and long-lived free-living mammals could secured even with today's technologies. Expanding the circle of compassion further is more technically challenging. Until a couple of years ago, I'd have spoken in terms of centuries. For sociological rather than technical reasons, I still think this kind of timescale is more credible for safeguarding the well-being of humans, transhumans and the humblest of nonhuman animals alike. Certainly, until the CRISPR revolution, talk of extending an abolitionist ethic beyond vertebrates sounded fanciful because compassionate interventions would pass from recognisable extensions of existing technologies to a speculative era of mature nanotechnology, self-replicating nanobots and marine drones patrolling the oceans. For me, the final piece of the abolitionist jigsaw only fell into place after reading Eric Drexler's Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology (1986) - a tantalising prospect, but not a scenario readily conceivable in our lifetime. Then came CRISPR. Even sober-minded scientists describe the CRISP revolution as "jaw-dropping". For a lucid non-technical overview, perhaps see Tim De Chantand and Eleanor Nelsen's "Genetically Engineering Almost Anything" (cf. Editing a genome now takes days. Gene drives can then spread the changes to the rest of the population. Whether for large iconic vertebrates or obscure uncharismatic bugs, the question to ask now is less what's feasible but rather, what's ethical? What kinds of consciousness, and what kinds of sentient being, do we want to exist in the world? Naturally, just because a pan-species welfare state is technically feasible, there is no guarantee that some sort Garden of Eden will ever come to pass. Most people still find the idea of phasing out the biology of involuntary suffering in humans a fanciful prospect - let alone its abolition in nonhuman animals. The well-being of all insects sounds like the reductio ad absurdum of the abolitionist project. But here I'm going to be quite dogmatic. A few centuries from now, if involuntary suffering still exists in the world, the explanation for its persistence won't be that we've run out of computational resources to phase out its biological signature, but rather that rational agents - for reasons unknown - will have chosen to preserve it.

io9: What's your ultimate vision for our planet and the animals that live on it?

DP: I look forward to a future where all sentient beings enjoy life animated by gradients of bliss. "Those who promise us paradise on earth never produced anything but a hell", said Karl Popper. In a similar vein, my sympathies lie with the sceptical reader who reckons humans will probably mess things up.

On a brighter note, if we get things right, the future of life in the universe can be wonderful beyond the bounds of human imagination: a "triple S" civilisation of superlongevity, superintelligence and superhappiness. I doubt I'll live to see it, but it's a future worth striving for.

David Pearce
August 2014
more interviews 1 : 2 : 3 : 4 : 5 : 6 : 7 : 8 : 9 : 10

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