Tuesday, March 24, 2009

David Brin on "uplift"

Noted science fiction writer David Brin is guest-blogging at Sentient Developments. First up is an evaluation of the contentious prospect of "animal uplift," a concept that Brin's novels helped define:

Artistically, of course, it is wonderful to work with characters who come from an uplifted species. I get to stretch my imagination, and the reader's, exploring what sapient dolphins or chimps might feel and think, under the pressure of such development, tugged between both the ancient instincts of their forebears and the new template being imposed upon them by their "patrons."

I see nothing philosophically wrong with animal uplift, but the concept is freighted with some alarming anthropocentric baggage. "Uplifting" animals to function as peers might sound liberatingly utopian, but the very notion of "peer" suggests, at least to me, beings more or less like ourselves.

As a potential "patron" race, we're bound to project our own preconceptions of personhood onto the animal species in question; our future uplifted friends might very well thank us, but they'll be doing so in a singularly human-like manner (in which case we might be better off poring our energies into the development of sentient machines instead of pretending to be faithful to a given species' zoological source code).

Well-intentioned as they are, proponents of animal uplift labor under the dubious assumption that there's something innately wrong (or at least existentially limiting) about animal-hood. On the other hand, anyone who's had a close relationship with an animal is bound to question such certainty. Sure, it might be nice to jam with my cats about quantum theory, but I sense they're quite content in their feline-hood -- and who am I to deprive them of that?

I'd go so far as to propose that animals are already engaging us in a meaningful dialogue, although perhaps not the sort of dialogue depicted in Brin's canon. That we've yet to understand our fellow mammals on their own terms remains an emasculating reminder that perhaps our "patronage" is neither needed nor desired.


Steve said...

Of course, given our tendency to anthropomorphize animals, it's interesting to consider that our uplifted pets might be in some ways more difficult to know than a true alien which we at least approach from a blank slate. This is just a thought off the top of my head and might not bear rigorous examination :P

Bruce Duensing said...

Human beings and their decoherence as a template for the animal world?
Choke..gasp..sigh ( in that order)

But that one in the joke book of tricks we play with our ego as trained seals toot horns in triumph.

Every day Wally, my dog exhibits more sincerity, humility and unconditional caring than most human beings I am aware of.

Uplift as a concept is whats wrong with every facet of our tampering with the natural world, by using improvement as a call to arms. We have improved our environment to the brink of destruction.

Mac, I couldn't agree with you more, the only way I could was, if I written your thoughts as my own.

Anonymous said...

Humans are the product of "animal uplift" according to Zecharia Sitchin.

Mac said...


I considered addressing Sitchin et al but decided against it. Still, we can't be absolutely sure that *we* haven't been "uplifted."

Anonymous said...

I agree with most of your comments on this subject Mac, but imagine how insufferable a cat jamming quantum physics might be. On the other hand, the dog would just talk sports and order out for pizza.

I think we should concentrate our efforts "uplifting" mankind before we undertake messing with our animal friends.


Anonymous said...

"I think we should concentrate our efforts "uplifting" mankind before we undertake messing with our animal friends."

Yeah, something along those lines came to my mind as well.

Not Michael

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