Equality is a concept our, meaning: human, society struggles with. Without fail when we’ve encountered an opportunity where it ought to be applied, we’ve ignored it, rallied hard against it, gone to war over it and eventually begrudgingly accepted it, although only specific to that situation, with little gleamed for future analogous situations.
I’ve said before that race, a space where equality ought to have been applied, has served as a useful marker to distinguish the worthy from the unworthy, the us from the them, the Philistines from the Jews, the Americans from the terrorists, the androids from the humans, the extra-terrestrials from the terrestrials—I could go on, which is why the optimism of my one of my favourite science-fiction writers, David Brin (I’m tearing through Existence as we speak), surprises me.
He wrote this weekend on his blog, “…nearly all tales about ‘uplift’ of other species assumed that it would be done stupidly—because stupidity leads to errors and conflict, which transform any concept into an action plot! Mistakes create peril, so those authors portrayed the uplifters being callous, unwise, even vicious slave-masters. When writers do this, the plot almost writes itself.”
This comes a couple of weeks after it was reported that animal uplift (using science to artificially increase the intelligence of animals to our level of intelligence), like many other musings of speculative-fiction writers, has crossed over from fiction to reality: scientists have successfully used brain implants to temporarily and in a limited way improve the thinking ability of rhesus monkeys. Though the intended application of the research is to restore the cognitive abilities of brain-damaged humans, only time and the shifting sands of ethics stands between that narrow application and using it to multiply the intelligence of healthy people or creating a far-away future where, if you’re still around by then, you could have fulfilling two-way conversations with your dog.
Brin and other cyber-optimists imagine it possible that the transition to this future could be without the stuff that’s proved a treasure trove for speculative fiction: human stupidity and conflict. In this future, we’d embrace dolphin philosophers, bonobo therapists, raven playwrights, says Brin. I’m not too sure about that.
Never mind the actual process of uplifting animals and all the stuff that could go wrong there, such as the ethics or discerning the point at which the reins of self-determination should be handed over to the animals (because that point arguably may have long been upon us). I’m more concerned with equality and the point where we might have to accept animals as our peers and thus deserving of the same rights we, humans, enjoy. Nothing in our history suggests this will be easy, or conflict and stupidity-free.
Colonialists, imperialists, nationalists, fundamentalists, sexists, racists, homophobes and such have applied the same dogma throughout time: the in-group is more worthy, more equal, than the out-group. I can’t fathom why this would change when or if we ever uplift animals or create sentient robots or come across extra-terrestrial intelligence. Can you imagine voting a pig (an actual pig of the sus genus, not a lying politician) into parliament? Despite how eloquently or, eventually, violently it might state its case (it should in theory once uplifted), I can’t imagine it either. I can scarcely imagine having to quit eating bacon because it’d be equivalent to cannibalism.
Of course this could all be neither here nor there. If these intelligence-enhancing implants work so well, we could just apply them to ourselves and, working from a higher natural base, we would always be more intelligent (and thus more worthy?) than non-human animals, thus preserving the status unequal. Then again, not all implants would be the same. The newer, super high-speed, seamless implants will be for those who can afford it and the slower, older, clunkier ones will be for those who cannot, thusly inequality replicates and persists.