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IEET > Vision > Bioculture > Contributors > HealthLongevity > David Pearce

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Parasites, Predators and Serial Killers (Part 2 of “Reprogramming Predators”)

David Pearce
By David Pearce

Posted: Feb 26, 2012

Suffocation induces a sense of extreme panic. It’s a comparatively rare experience in contemporary human life, although panic disorder, an anxiety disorder characterized by recurring severe panic attacks, is extremely unpleasant and quite common. Whatever its cause, the experience of suffocation is horrific. One’s lungs feel as though they will burst at any second. There is a loss of control of bodily functions. There is no psychological “coping mechanism”,  just an all-consuming fear, as witnessed by the traumatic effects of the waterboarding torture practised by the CIA; the entangled piles of bodies of victims in the Nazi gas chambers frantically clawing over each other to gasp in the last traces of breathable air; and the death-agonies of millions of herbivores every day in the wild.

It would be a mercy if the experience of suffocation were fundamentally different in human and non-human animals. This fond hope might be realized if the intuitively appealing “dimmer-switch” model of consciousness were tenable - and an organism’s degree of consciousness were reliably correlated with its degree of intelligence. The dimmer-switch model leads one to suppose that slow asphyxiation feels significantly less dreadful for a zebra than for a human being. Naïvely, we imagine that the asphyxiation of our vertebrate cousins is merely rather unpleasant for its victims rather than unbearable beyond words. Unfortunately, our core emotions are also the most intense modes of conscious experience; and the neural structures that mediate such primitive modes of consciousness are among the most strongly evolutionarily conserved. Intense fear, disgust, anger, hunger, thirst and pain are among the most powerful sensations known. They are phylogenetically ancient. Intense pleasure can of course be vivid too; but pleasure is not our focus here. In contrast to the phenomenology of our core emotions, the phenomenology of serial, “logical” thought-episodes in the distinctively human prefrontal cortex is vanishingly faint, as microelectrode studies and introspection of our own linguistic thought-episodes attest.

Moreover the problem is worse than “just” the acute intensity of suffering. Wildlife documentaries encourage the notion that death in Nature is typically fast. Some deaths are indeed mercifully swift. Many other deaths are slow and agonizing. Simply to survive, members of the cat family in the wild must inflict appalling suffering on their fellow mammals. More disturbingly still, domestic cats torment millions of terrified small rodents and birds each day before killing them - essentially for entertainment. Cats lack an adequate theory of mind. They don’t have an empathetic understanding of the implications of what they are doing. For a cat, the terrified mouse with whom it is “playing” has no more ethical significance than a zombie warrior slaughtered by a teenager playing “violent” videogames. But an absence of malice is no comfort to the tormented mouse.

Most modern city-dwellers do not lose any sleep over the cruelties of Nature, or indeed give them more than a passing thought. Implicitly, it’s assumed such suffering doesn’t matter. Or if it does matter, it doesn’t matter enough to mitigate or abolish. Why? The list of reasons below is incomplete but worth noting.

Our supposed lack of complicity due to impotence.

Throughout most of history, mankind could no more contemplate reordering the food chain than contemporary humans could contemplate changing, say, Planck’s constant or the rest mass of an electron. What happens in Nature is traditionally “just the way things are”; hence no one’s fault. Shortly, however, the persistence of nonhuman animal suffering will be our direct responsibility - whether abdicated or accepted remains to be seen.

A television-based conception of the living world.

Our view of the living world is significantly shaped by wildlife documentaries - and the narrative structure that their voiceovers and uplifting mood-music provide. Wildlife documentaries are designed to be entertaining as well as educative. They offer a spectacle of death, violence and aggression in a manner that is no longer deemed acceptable when practised on humans. It’s the same reason why for hundreds of years the Romans enjoyed the gory violence of the amphitheatre, and why nonhuman animals are still hunted by some humans for “sport”. One contemporary psychological problem for many people in everyday life isn’t pain or depression but boredom, a lack of stimulation. The sight of conflict and killing is exciting.

Selective realism.

We like our war movies and horror films to be realistic - but not too realistic. Likewise, wildlife documentaries aren’t expected to portray the full nastiness of Darwinian life, although there would doubtless be a sizeable audience if they did so, as YouTube viewing figures attest. The question of “taste” ensures that the more squeamish sensibilities of a wider television audience are spared most of the horror while still being entertained by the drama. A few minutes of stalking. The ambush. The thrill of the chase. A five-second shot of the lion with its jaw on the zebra’s throat. Next the camera cuts to a pride of lions eating a lifeless carcass. Realistic depictions of the full nastiness of predation are taboo. As David Attenborough once remarked to some viewers who complained that a scene shown was too gruesome: “You ought to see what we leave on the cutting room floor”. This text hints at the horror, but words don’t really portray it. And even the most explicit video couldn’t evoke the first-person reality of being dismembered, strangled, impaled, drowned, poisoned or eaten alive. The problem of suffering in Nature described here is worse - and its prevention more morally urgent - than we suppose. For example, try to imagine what it’s like slowly dying of thirst over several days during the dry season. There may be no overt drama. It’s just subjectively horrific. Hence the ethical obligation on the dominant species to stop such horrors as soon as we acquire the technical expertise to do so.

Adaptive empathy deficits.

Human empathetic responses are shaped by natural selection. Genetically, it’s fitness-enhancing for parents to experience an empathetic response to the feelings of their children, but maladaptive to feel compassion for their children’s “food”. Selection pressure for empathy toward members of other races or species - or genetic rivals - is weak to non-existent since such empathy wouldn’t promote our reproductive success - except insofar as it enabled our ancestors hunt and kill more successfully, or outwit their enemies. The human mind/brain isn’t designed to track the well-being of other members of our own species beyond our own tribe, let alone all other sentient beings. Such empathy sporadically occurs, but it has been selected, not selected for; its existence is just the byproduct of a fitness-enhancing adaptation. The discussion here focuses on empathy-deficits born of anthropocentric bias; but the ultimate empathy-deficit stems from egocentric bias. Coalitions of selfish genes throw up vehicles whose egocentric virtual worlds do not track the well-being of others sentient beings impartially. Perhaps only clones (i.e. identical twins, triplets, etc) could “naturally” do so reliably.

The cruelties of the living world are “natural”, therefore worth conserving: a price worth paying for the glories of Nature.

This is the way things ought to be, because this is the way things have always been. Status quo bias is endemic. Thus it simply doesn’t seem to have occurred to some otherwise smart thinkers in slave-owning societies that slavery could be morally wrong. Had the case for universal human freedom been put to them, the idea might well have seemed as silly as does questioning the inviolability of the food-chain at present. Potentially, status quo bias can take benign guises too. If we already lived in a cruelty-free world, the notion of re-introducing suffering, exploitation and creatures eating each other would seem not so much frightful as unimaginable - no more seriously conceivable than reverting to surgery without anesthesia today. Of course the extent of our status quo bias shouldn’t be exaggerated. There is something self-intimatingly wrong with one’s own intense pain while it lasts; and to a greater or lesser degree, we can generalize this urgent sense of wrongness to other suffering beings with whom we identify. But since most humans aren’t in agony most of the time, any generalizations we make tend to be weak; and restricted in scope on account of our evolutionary descent.


David Pearce is the author of the internet manifesto The Hedonistic Imperative, that details how the abolition of suffering can be accomplished through "paradise engineering." He co-founded the World Transhumanist Association in 1998, and the Abolitionist Society in 2002.
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Its a great article, an interesting argumeng and an almost convincing rhetoric.

I agree that being human, and the experience and the quality of being human, involves a sense of risk, thrill and adrenalin for many, for some more than others. There are many ways to simulate that in a peaceful society - I myself like skydiving - and its also true that some get a thrill from watching animals hunt and kill. In the wild. But that shouldn’t be confused with gladiatorial games and bull fighting.

Humans, or trans-humans, have evolved to a point where we can shape our societies and development at our own speed and at our own will. I am reminded of Greg Egan’s novel Diaspora in which some humans choose to evolve as computer based life and others choose to regress to life in the wild (the “dream apes”). Being part of a human society implies inclusivity, but being human also comes with a certain amount of freedom to drop in and out of society. Actually I believe, the maximum of freedom possible to do so without anarchy or destruction of that society (i.e harm to others). So, I support the imprisonment of murderers and rapists to a certain extent. But, given the option, if a rapist prefers chemical castration to imprisonment then so be his will, if the end result (safety) is the same to society. I can also imagine a future where a killer, either proven or predisposed, is given the option of life in the wild, free with animals, away from society and fending for himself, as an alternative to being forced into a disagreeable social system.

Animals deserve this kind of freedom. Its hard to know the mind of the beast, but at least they deserve the opportunity to evolve as we did, in the wild, in nature, not the artifice of a transhumanist society they play no part in producing.

Guy, thanks. Maybe if some kind of convergent evolution occurs, another species with opposable thumbs and a generative syntax might evolve though natural selction. Let’s suppose they master the technology to rewrite their own source code and claw its way out of the Darwinian abyss too. But at best, such evolution would take millions of years. The delay would entail untold suffering. In the meantime, just what kind of “freedom” do nonhuman animals really enjoy? For the most part, their lives are inescapably “nasty, brutish and short”.

Some philosophers have indeed supposed that the minds of nonhuman animals are inscrutable: “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him”, said Wittgenstein. So how can we really know what is in their best interests? Yet abundant evidence suggests that our core emotions and appetites are strongly conserved in the vertebrate line. If famished, dying of thirst, fleeing in terror for their lives, or faced with being disembowelled, asphyxiated or eaten alive, nonhuman animals most likely feel little different from “us”.

I agree with Wittgenstein - so its also foolish for me to project human concepts like freedom onto wild animals. To be more direct; I don’t believe it is in our best interest to change the nature of beasts, except for those that are already within our domain, such as food and utility animals.

Why? The concept of bio-diversity mostly. There is a lot of we still don’t know about the billions of genomes that comprise the biological world, and our understanding will be improved by an unrestricted range of study -at one end of this is non-invasive observation of animals in the wild. Manipulating the behaviour of wild animals will figuratively contaminate these studies. On an aesthetic level, I also believe we should preserve nature as much as possible, separate from the rapidly changing human world, for future generations to appreciate. Much in the same way we preserve archaeology.

This doesn’t apply to animals we use for food or utility - we have already changed them through selective breeding and I see no reason to not change them further. And I applaud scientists like Temple Grandin for making improvements to the welfare of animals caught up in human systems. I can’t see any reason not genetically adapt an animal better for food production (though I don’t know if I would take it as far as Douglas Adam’s did )
Addtionally, the study of how are changes like these affect the nature and evolution of animals is also important and part of the observational spectrum.

You may accuse me of anthropocentric bias. Thats true. My argument comes from the concern that the correct care of animals is necessary for the successful future of the human race, and its how we define this care that is important.

Guy, could you clarify?

Are you arguing that when nonhuman animals experience terror, agony and despair, this description is anthropomorphic? Their quality of experience is radically different from its human counterpart. So we should really write “terror”, “agoiny” and “despair”.

Or have I misunderstood your position?

I don’t have a strong position on whether the terminology we use to describe animal conditions are anthopmorphic… I guess they have to be, but that doesn’t negate their value. Which we would be dependent on their appropriateness - I might have erred in my first post to project a concept like feeling “freedom” onto a wild animal, though maybe they have a sense of it. Surely they feel pain, perhaps agony, but “terror” or “despair” I reckon must be contingent on higher brain functioning they just don’t have. I watched the mountain climbing documentary “Touching the Void” recently, and listening to Joe Simpson describe the 3 or 4 days it took to crawl back to base camp with a broken leg and without water sounded very much like he had channeled the intensity of an animals instinct to survive. He only very occasionally felt despair because he was too busy getting on with simply surviving. This intensity we see in animals might be mistaken for despair, but probably isn’t.

In any case, that just my speculation. What I really meant by saying I am being anthropomorphic is that its appropriate to care for animals in a way that best advantages human society. This can be quite broad and include aesthetic concerns, like feeling sensations of empathy and care we can engender from freeing them from cages and leaving them alone in the wild. These aesthetics often reflect back on how we feel about our fellow humans and what kind of society we want to create for ouselves, and so I think your concern for animal welfare is important. Yet, we also care for, and kill, animals for food and other uses which have valid aesthetic and utilitarian purposes. In regards to the status of wild animals, for me my aesthetic and social (and scientific) concern is to keep them in a pristine state and as much as possible free from human intervention.

If I can summarise it correctly, your argument is making a trans-humanist position that animals can suffer just as much as humans and so deserve freedom from suffering. This appeals in some senses, especially when we are reminded of disgraceful societies where humans have been (or still are) considered sub-human, such as in conditions of slavery.  However, there are important differences between humans and animals that can not be reconciled by analogy - no matter how far humans themselves deviate from a natural state in a transhumanist society. We may need to make sophisticated arguments for why a transhuman intellectually regressed “dream ape” may deserve rights, just as we do now for the intellectually disabled, but these arguments do not necessarily flow downwards to animals. There are the most important differences of communication and consciousness , but also agency. A human slave wants to be free from suffering. We can also project that unequivocably onto the intellectually disabled. But to free animals from suffering, actually “trans-animalise” wild animals, without their own agency? This might be considerable if there was human utility or aesthetic value in it, but I don’t think there is.

Sorry for such a long post… its a very interesting topic.

Consider an orphaned prelinguistic infant or toddler with a progressive disease who will never reach his or her third birthday. We’d agree s/he deserves love, care and respect. Now compare nonhuman animals. A human baby or prelinguistic toddler is not the same as an elephant or a gazelle or a pig. But the question is what, if anything, would you consider the morally relevant difference between them?
(cf. )

If we can’t find such a morally relevant difference, should we be consistent in our benevolence? Or is species self-interest ethically sufficient?

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