"It must be so." Is Richard Dawkins right? Are the cruelties of the food chain an inescapable fact of Nature: no more changeable than, say, Planck's constant or the Second Law of Thermodynamics? The Transhumanist Declaration expresses our commitment to the "well-being of all sentience". Yet do these words express merely a pious hope - or an engineering challenge?
The End of Suffering?"During the minute it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive; others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear; others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites; thousands of all kinds are dying from starvation, thirst and disease. It must be so. If there is ever a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored."
River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (1995)
My own recent work involves exploring some of the practical steps entailed by compassionate ecosystem redesign - cross-species immunocontraception, genomic rewrites, cultured meat, neurochips, global surveillance and wildlife tracking technologies, and the use of nanorobots for marine ecosystems. Until this century, most conceivable interventions to mitigate the horrors of Nature "red in tooth and claw" would plausibly do more harm than good. Rescue a herbivore ["prey"] and a carnivore ["predator"] starves. And if, for example, we rescue wild elephants dying from hunger or thirst, the resultant population explosion would lead to habitat degradation, Malthusian catastrophe and thus even greater misery. Certainly, the computational power needed to micromanage the ecosystem of a medium-sized wildlife park would be huge by today's standards. But recall that Nature supports only half a dozen or so "trophic levels"; and only a handful of "keystone predators" in any given habitat. Creating a truly cruelty-free living world may cost several trillion dollars or more. But the problem is computationally tractable within this century - if we acknowledge that wild animal suffering matters.
A few commentators (e.g. Robert Wiblin) favour letting terrestrial wild animals die out as habitat destruction continues apace. Most animal lovers will be aghast at such an idea. But the case for phasing out carnivorous predators, at least, deserves to be heard respectfully even if we reject it. For we don't encourage the propagation of human predators and serial killers who prey on the innocent and vulnerable. Why go to all the trouble of genetically tweaking or otherwise reprogramming their animal counterparts?
However, permitting a species to go extinct is presumably not to be done lightly. So if we:1) want to see iconic wild animal species conserved in some guise or other,then ecosystem redesign offers a radically bioconservative and humane compromise.
2) ethically opposed to all forms of involuntary suffering,
Looking further ahead, whether our posthuman successors opt to preserve primitive animal life - both non-human and human - is an open question.
Immense suffering in the world today derives not from untamed Nature, but from human activity. By far the greatest source of avoidable suffering arises from raising and killing of other sentient beings for food. As I write, some 25 billion captive non-human animals endure lifelong misery in our factory farms. So one of the most exciting technical developments in recent years is progress in the development of in vitro meat. With adequate research funding, healthy and delicious cultured meat of a taste and texture more palatable than flesh from factory-farmed animals can replace today's animal products. In principle, the production process should be scalable indefinitely, allowing fulfilment of the utopian-sounding prospect of global veganism without the inconvenience of changing human diet.
Some of my friends in the animal activist community are appalled at the prospect of genetically engineered cultured meat. Not least, they argue that its development will be a distraction from our duty to make the moral case against the animal holocaust. Pigs, for example, have the emotional and intellectual development of a human toddler. Neurological evidence suggests that, at the very least, pigs have an equal capacity to suffer intense physical and emotional pain. Are we really going to carry on factory-farming and killing sentient beings who are functionally akin to our own young children until cruelty-free alternatives become available?
Most probably, yes. I hope I'm wrong, but I'm pessimistic about the power of ethical argument alone to overcome moral apathy and anthropocentric bias. Human beings demonstrate an extraordinary capacity to devise self-serving rationalizations to justify the abuse of other humans and non-human animals alike. Recall, for example, the centuries it took to abolish human slavery and the rationalizations offered in its defence. The only way we can be sure of abolishing the cruelties of the meat industry is to make factory farming economically unviable compared to the consumption of cultured meat. Hence organizations like New Harvest ["working to develop new meat substitutes"] should be welcomed by all transhumanists.
News of hi-tech ways to improve human life is more mixed. Here I'll consider just one example from psychiatric medicine. Perhaps the biggest disappointment of recent years has been the recognition that what modern medicine calls "antidepressants" fare little better than placebos when unpublished studies are included in meta-analyses of their efficacy. Publication bias, conflicts of interest and ghost-writing are endemic to academic medicine. Even the most scientifically rigorous apparatus of double-blind, prospective, crossover, placebo-controlled clinical trials can be subverted by the cash nexus and the darker side of Big Pharma. Worse, any future solution to the scourge of depressive illness itself is far from clear. Two characteristics of melancholic depression are profound sadness and low motivation. The therapeutic agents which reliably brighten mood and enhance motivation - i.e. mu opioid agonists and dopaminergics - all have significant abuse potential. So is the search for safe, fast-acting and effective antidepressants with negligible abuse potential simply a pipedream?
If we are ever to make depression history, I think genetic remedies will be needed. Evolutionary psychiatrists believe that depression arose as an individual adaptation to group living in social mammals (cf. Rank Theory). Whatever its evolutionary origins, depression and other mood disorders are genetically redundant in the modern world. If all of us are to enjoy heathy mood and motivation from birth, then the human genome needs re-editing. Preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) of prospective children must become the norm as the impending reproductive revolution unfolds. In the meantime, almost a million people in the contemporary world take their own lives each year. Hundreds of millions more suffer from untreated depression. To expect sufferers from refractory depression to wait decades or more until genetic medicine delivers a cure would be callous at best. I personally think that any contemporary victim of "treatment-resistant" depression should be permitted compassionate access to effective drug therapies, despite the pitfalls of physiological dependence.
In my talk in April, I hope to give an update and an overview of the Abolitionist Project. What needs to be done next? I also hope to say something about the connections between the abolition of suffering and intelligence-amplification, existential risk, radical life-extension and the (contested!) prospects of some kind of technological Singularity. Clearly, transhumanism is an exceedingly broad church. What ties link such seemingly diverse themes?
The Wired Society
Social Media (2023)
The Good Drug Guide
The Abolitionist Project
Dazed and Confused 2011
The Hedonistic Imperative
The Reproductive Revolution
'The Genomic Bodhisattva' (!)
MDMA : Utopian Pharmacology
Critique of Huxley's Brave New World
Quantum Ethics? Suffering in the Multiverse
Top Five Reasons Transhumanism Can Abolish Suffering
The Fate of the Meat World (Harvard H+ Summit, 2010)
O Fim Do Sofrimento (Brazilian Portuguese translation)