Tuesday 7 October 2003

The Ethical Treatment of Animals

I'm in a quandary about animal rights.

As a computer scientist who's done a bit of work here and there on Artificial Intelligence, and rather more research on the nature of consciousness and biological nervous systems as computational devices, I've come to some very discomforting conclusions.

Basically, that there is no clean dividing line between "people" on one hand, and "unthinking animals" on the other. Most Humans - even Michael Moore - are people, whereas axolotls are not. But when it comes to the higher mammals, especially ones socialised over a long period by living amongst humans, the situation is far less clear.

This will not come as news to anyone who's had a pet dog or cat. These are people too, at least in some sense. A Frog is more like a toaster than a Dog, but a Dog is more like a Human than a Frog. (Amphibia are basically Not Very Bright, and this can be proven by examining the signals in their nervous system. We could program a desktop computer that would pass the Frog-version of the Turing Test)

I've written some previous posts on artifical augmentation of humans, Cyborgs and Hybrots (scroll down to July 13) and similar matters.

From a recent story about a PETA protest :
A man identifying himself as Derek said: "If we are gonna eat flesh, then let it be flesh raised properly."
PETA does its best to increase the cost of doing business, and the retail price of meat, by demanding more wing-flapping room, more humane - read expensive - slaughter methods and even mandatory play-toys for pigs," said David Martosko, director of research for the Center for Consumer Freedom.

"If every livestock animal in America were given its own apartment, limousine and personal trainer, PETA would still argue that they have the "right" to not be eaten. Thankfully, most Americans see how ridiculous this position is," Martosko told CNSNews.com.
He's right, that's what PETA is after. But what I'm after is more wing-flapping room, more humane slaughter methods, and yes, mandatory play-toys for pigs, who are as intelligent as some dogs. I'm an omnivore, and so somewhat hypocritical. I like Black Pudding (made with pig's blood), bacon, ham, roast pork with apple sauce. But.. I'd give them all up tomorrow if I thought it might help the lot of the pig. If we're going to slaughter them, let's at least be as hypocritically kind as we can.

From my thesis:
The problems that arise due to the new technology are in figuring out what we ought to do from here. The nice, convenient lines between animate and inanimate are being blurred by Hybots. The equally convenient lines between "Natural" and "Artificial" intelligence are being blurred by Cyborgs. It is now of paramount importance that ethical and philosophical issues that were once safely in the realm of hypothesis be confronted and resolved swiftly, so we don't act wrongly in a moral sense.

The type of question is that posed by Hofstadter (1999) in his "gradual replacement" scenario. In this, Hofstadter proposes the following Gedankenexperiment. Suppose a person with a fully functioning brain is given a series of surgical operations. Each neuron is replaced by a functionally identical inorganic replacement. Given the complexity of behaviour of a single neuron, a single Personal Computer would suffice to adequately model one. After each neuron is replaced, the patient is asked if he is aware, and whether he feels any different. Eventually, the patient's entire central nervous system has been replaced with artificial non-organic components, each faithfully replicating the exact behaviour of its natural antecedent.

When originally posed, this was a useful tool in examining which, if any, of the various theories of Mind (Mind-Body Materialism, Duality, Behaviouralism, Functionality) were most useful, and what their limitations were. But recent events, such as described by Aguilera 1999 and Graham-Rowe 2003 have made this scenario a distinct possibility, at least in part. There is the possibility that relatively simple animals may have their brains replaced wholly or partially by inorganic analogues in order to further understand the nature of Mind, and that this is technologically simpler than dreamed possible even a few years ago. It is also possible that more complex animals, including human beings, may have their minds augmented by inorganic brain prostheses, at first to restore functionality lost to accident or disease, but there appears to be no reason why the augmentation of mind should be limited to restoring what has been lost. But just because we can do something doesn't mean we should do it.

The blurring of the boundaries Life vs. NonLife, Intelligent vs. Unintelligent, Mind vs. No-Mind forces us to consider other issues that have been left very much in the "too hard" basket. Primarily, the one of the ethical treatment of animals.

Consider the two pictures above: On the left, Andrew Brain, Species Homo Sapiens, age 18 months. On the right, Brandy Brain, age 10 years, Species Canis Vulgaris. At this stage of their lives, from personal observation, both are equally intelligent. One is toilet trained, the other not, one can open doors with his hands, the other uses her snout. Andrew still has the playfulness and curiousity of the puppy or child, whereas the other is far better co-ordinated. Both have about the same vocabulary when it comes to speech or understanding what's said to them. Both have very distinct personalities, emotions, and require affection and personal interaction for happiness. The main difference is one of potential. Yet next-door is a halfway house for the severely intellectually disabled. In it are more members of the species Homo Sapiens, most of whom are developmentally on a par with Andrew, perhaps a little less. Some ; the caregivers ; are fully developed normal human beings. They all have very distinct personalities, emotions, and require affection and personal interaction for happiness. The mythical "Man from Mars" who examined this situation would find it difficult to distinguish between any of them, except on reasoning ability. Why should Dogs be put firmly in one category (regardless of intellect), Humans be in another (regardless of intellect)? Is it only Species chauvinism? Or the feeling that any one of us, due to car accident or other brain injury, could become profoundly intellectually impaired, and thus Humans who have limited intellect are thus to be accorded much the same privileges as those with more nous.

These are difficult questions; some organisations that are rightly anathematised as profoundly Evil, such as the National Socialist German Workers Party (Nazis) treated the imbecilic or insane as they treated stray dogs - they were humanely euthenased. In fact, they treated their pet dogs better, although Adolf Hitler's dog Blondi was the first to die by poison in the Fuehrerbunker.

Perhaps we should treat the imbecilic like we treat pet dogs. Or rather, we should treat dogs with the same degree of respect and kindness that we treat the profoundly brain-injured, or 18-month-old infants. But then, where do we draw the line? Cat-aficionados would doubtless require that their companions be accorded equal rights. There is considerable evidence to show that Pigs are at least as intelligent as many Dogs. Should we foreswear the eating of Bacon, Ham and Pork? (Weinstock 1999) Some African Grey parrots have shown the ability to reason abstractly far in advance of either Andrew or Brandy, (Pepperberg 1993), should they be given equivalent rights to three-year-olds? The generally humourous and mocking tone adopted by Weinstock 1999 should not obscure the general issue of things we prefer not to think about:

I don't know about you, but I don't want to be able to communicate with pigs. I'm not a heartless person. I don't want to think that the pig that gave its life for my morning bacon spent its last moments sitting at a computer terminal frantically typing out, "PLEASE DON'T KILL AND EAT ME!! I AM NOT AN ANIMAL! PLEASE!!"
Let's put the professor's computer sign language to work with animals we don't eat. I'd love for my dog to be able to tell me what the hell he's barking at at three in the morning. And I'd really like to know what my cat has to be so uppity about.
Weinstock 1999

One practical problem with according Animal Rights is that the organisations that propagate the meme are often not so much for Animal Rights as against Human Rights. The nineteenth-century "Noble Savage" of Rousseau has been replaced with the "Noble Animal". "People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals" (PETA) recently objected to the use of a Donkey to carry a bomb intended to slaughter dozens of people, purely because an animal was involved as victim. (Ananova 2003).

Ms Newkirk says she has not asked Mr Arafat to try to stop suicide bombings that kill people.
"It's not my business to inject myself into human wars," she told the Washington Post.
Ananova 2003

Other Animal Rights activists are notorious for bombing laboratories using experimental animals, releasing lab animals to die slow painful deaths due to starvation outside their natural habitat, and generally causing ecological havoc.

The problem of Animal Rights becomes acute and immediate when we consider the experimentation currently underway with Hybots. It can be persuasively argued that experimentation with primitive organisms like lampreys (Gugliotta 2001) and spiny lobsters(Aguilera 1999) do not involve "thinking creatures" as such. The fact that some of the neural processing can be replaced by an absurdly simple inorganic equivalent is strong evidence of this. A lamprey or a spiny lobster, despite being organic, may in fact be no more than a self-directing robot. The situation described by Graham-Rowe 2001 is less clear : only a few thousand neurons are used, and from Rat foetuses rather than the fully-developed animal, yet it is this very plasticity and higher level of development that leads one to suspect that the result may "think" in an animal fashion rather than merely be a robot with organic parts. Should such a Hybot be able to navigate a maze, then very troubling ethical issues arise regarding cruelty. We can plausibly avoid the issue when dealing with a non-organic artificial intelligence with the same external behaviour, but we know Rats think. And the situation regarding fully inorganic artificial intelligence is not as clear-cut as it once was, given the experimentation with Cyborgs and prosthetic brain parts. There is potential for suffering on a scale undreamt-of, and for very much longer than a normal lifespan. Call it Hell on Earth. Conversely, there is the possibility that we might fully understand the nature of thought, and resolve the issues of how we should treat animals. We may even be able to augment ourselves to become, if not Gods, perhaps a little more wise as well as intelligent. Call it Heaven on Earth.


Aguilera Mario 1999, UCSD Team Connects Electronic Circuit To Brain Cells Enabling Repair Of Damaged Neurons, Last Updated 7 October 1999, UCSD News, San Diego, CA, Last Viewed 5 May 2003, http://ucsdnews.ucsd.edu/newsrel/science/alobster.htm.

Ananova 2003, Anger over donkey bomb attack, Last Updated 6 February 2003, Last Viewed 30 May 2003, http://www.ananova.com/news/story/sm_748025.html

Graham-Rowe Duncan 2003, Last Updated 12 March 2003, World's first brain prosthesis revealed, New Scientist, London, UK, Last Viewed 5 May 2003, http://www.newscientist.com/news/news.jsp?id=ns99993488.

Gugliotta Guy 2001, Last Updated 17 April 2001, The Robot with the Mind of an Eel, Washington Post, Washington DC, Last Viewed 19 May 2003, http://www.raven1.net/eelrobot.htm

Hofstadter Douglas R. 1999, Goedel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Basic Books 1999, ISBN 0465026567

Pepperberg 1993, Last Updated January 1995, STUDIES TO DETERMINE THE INTELLIGENCE OF AFRICAN GREY PARROTS, Proceedings of The International Aviculturists Society, Last viewed May 30 2003, http://www.mecca.org/~rporter/PARROTS/grey_al.html

Weinstock Harper Lee 1999, The Smarter White Meat, Last Visited 30 May 2003, http://www.timknox.com/weinstock/pig.html
If you want a conclusion, here's some advice: next time you're buying eggs, buy "barn-laid" or "free-range" varieties, if you can possibly afford the 25% price difference. And if you're not in a part of the world where the distinction is marked on the box, then lobby your local politicians to get the labelling made mandatory, at least, on the non-battery ones. The longest journey begins with a single step, and you'll have done more practical good than all of PETA's antics put together.

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