Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Kitty minus kitty

In my last post, I noted the problems with Michael Anissimov’s attempt to defend “morphological freedom” as following from the civil rights movement. I described the way racism has been historically combated by appealing to what we have in common. This is an inherent problem with comparing “species-ism” to racism, because racism is combated precisely by appealing to our common humanity — that is, to our common species.

But it’s worth noting that a similar point holds when we look at an existing, non-hypothetical debate about interspecies rights and difference: the animal-rights debate. If we apply Mr. Anissimov’s “morphological freedom” argument to that debate, we again find it pretty lacking: Advocates of animal rights don’t argue that we should treat, say, a pig with respect or kindness because it “has a right to be a pig,” but rather because we should empathize with the way that, like us, a pig is intelligent (after a fashion) and has emotions and the capacity for suffering.

In fact, Mr. Anissimov, like many transhumanists, considers himself to be continuing the movement for animal rights in addition to civil rights. It’s all part of the ostensible transhumanist benevolence outreach, the grand quest to end suffering. But their formulation of this is to “reprogram” animals so as to end predation. Cats could go on being cat-like in some way, but we have an obligation to remake them so that they no longer hunt and kill. But have a look at this:

Where is the line here between the feline instincts to hunt and play? Is the hunting aspect of a cat something wholly separable from its nature, something that can be cleanly excised? Isn’t a cat minus its hunting instinct a cat minus a cat?

The suggestion of a project to end predation illustrates the transhumanist inclination to see living beings as simply a collection of components that have no logical dependencies on each other — as independent parts rather than wholes. But, more to the point, it makes the question of morphological freedom a pressing one for transhumanists themselves, who before undertaking such a project would quite seriously have to confront the question, “does a cat have a right to be a cat?”

1 comment:

  1. Humans have already been tampering with and excising behavioral components of animals through domestication. Clearly though, some modifications will render an organism something totally different. A spider's life predominantly revolves around building and tending a web so as to eat other creatures. Take that away and there won't be much left of interest (beyond the underlying biology).

    Cat's, though, are more multifaceted (as this video demonstrates). Take away a cat's nature to hunt and you'll have a different animal (ipso facto). The same is true of a person if you took away their desire to eat. But in both of these cases I think there would enough left intact for us to consider it the same being.

    If the aim is to preserve the beauty and structure of an entire ecosystem though... engineering away predation is obviously a case of throwing the baby out with the bath water.


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