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Should we make animals smarter?

Brain research raises the possibility of a very exotic future

Globe staff photo illustration

The science of artificial brain improvement is making quick progress in labs across the country. Earlier this month, a team of researchers from the University of Rochester and the University of California, Los Angeles announced that they’d created smarter-than-average rodents by injecting human brain cells into the forebrains of newborn mouse pups. Other scientists have used electronic brain implants to improve the memory first of rats, then of rhesus monkeys. Once the province of science fiction and medical thrillers, “cognitive enhancement” is now a real (if distant) prospect for human beings.

Debates over proper use of the technology have already begun. Some thinkers eagerly anticipate the day when we can use a combination of genes, drugs, and electrodes to blow past the natural biological limits of our three-pound brains. Others say more caution is in order—first we need to decide how such powerful tools should be used, or whether it’s proper to meddle with the brain at all.

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So far, the assumption in these debates has been that all this research is being done for the benefit of humans. But as the science moves forward, a handful of philosophers, futurists, and transhumanists are making another case: As we learn to amplify our own intellects, we should bring animals along with us. “There are other creatures on this planet that may be in need or deserving of also getting these sorts of interventions,” says George Dvorsky, who directs the Rights of Non-Human Persons program at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. “We should always be considering the larger family of sentient organisms on this planet—not just human beings.”

Roddy McDowell as Galen in “Planet of the Apes.”

Roddy McDowell as Galen in “Planet of the Apes.”

The notion of building brainier animals, sometimes also called “animal uplift,” is a radical, sometimes unsettling proposition. At the extreme, it brings to mind such fantastical possibilities as talking chimps and voting dolphins—a future in which humans no longer sit alone at the top of the intellectual ladder. And even if we never end up heading to the voting booth alongside a family of genius monkeys, merely grappling with the prospect, and all its potential implications, could force us to think more deeply and sensitively about our relationship to other species.

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Animals have long served as test subjects for medical science, and have often shared in its benefits. Veterinarians prescribe antihistamines to alleviate allergies, Prozac to calm anxious pets, and chemotherapy to vanquish animal cancers. Oncologists at the Tufts School of Veterinary Medicine have given bone marrow transplants to dogs; in December, cardiologists at Angell Animal Medical Center outfitted a West Highland terrier with a pacemaker.

If and when cognitive enhancement becomes routine, we should similarly see it as an advance to be shared, “part of a common good,” Dvorsky says. Withholding its benefits from other species—some of which have served and died in the research—would be just as unethical, he argues, as withholding them from certain human populations, such as people who cannot afford them.

Dvorsky is just one of a handful of thinkers who have been making the case, in journal articles and at scientific conferences, that boosting animal intelligence is an ethical imperative.

David Brin, a scientist and author, sparked many of the first conversations on animal enhancement with his series of award-winning science fiction novels on uplift. For Brin, our obligation to animals becomes stronger when you consider the intellectual gifts that our species has been given. Although an array of recent studies has shown apes, dolphins, elephants, crows, and other creatures to be remarkably intelligent, “they all crowd up against a glass ceiling that only one phylum has ever broken through,” Brin says. “And boy did we break through. We’re the lucky ones, we made it through, and we turn around and refuse to lend a hand? Who are we to say: We could help you, but you’re fine the way you are?”

There’s no reason to think that animals won’t benefit from increased intelligence, just as humans have, says Sarah Chan, a bioethicist at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. “If we think about the kinds of things that make a chimpanzee’s life go either well or badly, the kind of things that might make its life go well are being able to find food more easily, being able to create a comfortable and secure environment, being able to avoid danger, enjoying social interaction—all of these things are probably activities that would be assisted by being more intelligent,” she says.

Perhaps a little cognitive boost could help threatened creatures take better advantage of their environments, easing the constant struggle for survival. Or maybe it would enrich their lives in other ways, fostering more complex kinds of communication or even new kinds of animal culture.

The possibilities can sound downright rosy, but they also place us in tricky ethical territory. Humans can volunteer for neural augmentation and tell us which new skills and senses they might like to have. Animals can’t do that.

The proposal to uplift animals is “a kind of benevolent colonialism,” says Paul Graham Raven, a futures researcher at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom who opposes the idea. “In the vast majority of cases, people arguing for animal uplift really do have the very best intentions. But it involves assuming that you’re in a position to judge” what’s best for another species.

It’s “hubris,” Raven says, to assume that other animals would be better off if their minds were more like ours, and it’s not a given that cognitive enhancement would actually improve their day-to-day experience. What kind of life would an uplifted chimpanzee actually have? “It would be a long sentence of imprisonment,” Raven says, “and not just imprisonment within a laboratory but imprisonment of a human mind in a nonhuman body in a nonhuman culture in which it was not raised.”

There’s also the distinct possibility, Chan acknowledges, that humans will use and abuse enhanced animals, treating them in ways that “fail to respect their intelligence.” Or what if an extra-intelligent creature comes to realize the not always pleasant role that nonhuman animals play in our society? What if a cow comes to discover that many of its brethren end up in slaughterhouses?

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At its most extreme, animal uplift could transform the balance of power among species on Earth, an idea that has an obvious downside for humans, but would represent an enormous advance for animal rights. Turbocharging the minds of certain creatures—such as apes, elephants, and dolphins—could allow these species to advocate for themselves and their future.

“If they start to become active members of the broader community, a pan species community, where they’re actually able to articulate and fight for their rights, that would be pretty profound,” Dvorsky says.

Uplifted apes could lobby on behalf of all apes, for instance, pushing to outlaw their use in research. A subpopulation of cognitively gifted elephants could rally for better protections for the world’s elephants. And enhanced animals could take the evolution of their species into their own hands, deciding whether they’d like to pursue further cognitive modifications.

It’s a radical idea, Dvorsky acknowledges: “I have trouble wrapping my head around it.”

The potential rise of a class of sapient nonhuman animals wouldn’t be easy for society to accept, even if the science were possible. Indeed, whenever the discussion of animal enhancement moves from specialist circles into the mainstream, comment threads fill up with references to movies like “Planet of the Apes” and warnings that smart animals might eventually overthrow humans.

It’s an extreme and fantastical scenario, to be sure, but it remains a culturally potent one. Animals capable of engaging with us on a more equal footing would be an enormous threat to our sense of human exceptionalism—and the notion that human life is uniquely valuable. “Animals that have human capacities in some way challenge us to think more about what it is we find special and valuable in humans,” Chan says. “And I think most people are not very comfortable with anything that challenges the easy idea that if you’re human, you’re in the club and if you’re not human, you’re out.”

Of course, the prospect of sharing the planet with entire species of animals with human-like brains remains remote—even if the feat proves technically possible, it’s not clear whether society will sanction it. (For his part, Raven thinks we should be spending less time worrying about enhancing animals, and more time figuring out how to ensure that all humans have access to equal opportunities. “Then you can come back to me and say, ‘Well what about the apes?’ ”)

But as the research shows, the opportunity to offer animals at least modest cognitive boosts will be here sooner than most of us realize. And Chan says animal uplift is worth mulling over even if we know we’ll never create a race of enhanced dolphins.

The fact that such a thought experiment worries us—that we might have something to fear if dolphins get the vote or if cows suddenly realize what’s happening to them—suggests something clearly to Chan and other scholars: that we might want to consider the way we treat animals now, regardless of their intelligence.

“I am not in any sort of policy sense advocating that we should instantly go around and cognitively enhance all of the chimpanzees, mice, and other sorts of animals that we can get our hands on,” she says. “But what I think we should do is consider far more critically our understanding of nonhuman animals and their relationship to biotechnology. So that they’re not just experimental subjects, but they may have interests in their own right.”

Emily Anthes is a science journalist and ­author of the new book “Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts.”
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