To end the suffering caused by animal predators, should the “serial killers” be rendered extinct, or just “reprogrammed”?
One solution to the barbarities of predation is to use indiscriminate depot-contraception on carnivores and allow predators rapidly to die out, managing the resultant population effects on “prey” species via more selective forms of depot-contraception. Such advanced computer-controlled contraception technologies could be used selectively on zebra, buffalo, wildebeest, etc, so our wildlife parks don’t become overpopulated.
The feasibility of such population-management is shown by the use of fertility-regulating depot-contraception on male elephants living in the Kruger National Park in preference to the distressing practice of “culling”. Most human wildlife enthusiasts prefer the use of depot-contraception as a means of population-control to killing families of elephants; but they also find the idea of an absence of lions even in our wildlife parks to be abhorrent. This may be so; but the case for selective extinction isn’t absurd, even if we reject it after due deliberation. Why fetishise lifeforms endowed with a heritable tendency to prey on and strangulate others?
Parallels with the Third Reich are best used sparingly; but sometimes they are apt. It’s worth asking why there is such an extensive Net-based community that regards black-uniformed SS and their regalia as fascinating - far more fascinating than, say, colourless NKVD apparatchiks and the squalor of the Gulag, or the half-forgotten Ottoman genocide of the Armenians. If exercised with panache, extreme power and violence intrigue us. Thankfully, our captivation by stylish embodiments of evil has limits: immaculate SS are a lot more elegant than their victims on the way to asphyxiation in the gas chambers; but we aren’t going to preserve or literally re-create them except in movies. Some monstrous lifeforms are best banished to the archives for good. By the same token, the spectacle of large predators hunting and asphyxiating their terrified victims is more visually compelling than herbivores browsing inoffensively. Which would you rather watch on TV? If there is misplaced emotion here, it lies in our fetishizing the strong, handsome and powerful over the gentle and vulnerable.
It is worth stressing, repeatedly since the charge is made time and again, that this indictment of predators is not to blame a lion [or a domestic cat] for its behaviour. First, barring genetic engineering or freaks of nature, lions are obligate carnivores. Secondly, they don’t understand the implications of what they are doing. Any mutant lion with a theory of mind capable of empathizing with its prey would be rapidly outbred by “sociopathic” lions. Barring human intervention, a compassionate lion who rejected the “law of the jungle” would starve to death. Consequently so would its cubs. Lions are “sociopathic” towards members of prey species, just as throughout history many humans have behaved sociopathically to members of other races and tribes - though enslavement has been more common in humans than cannibalism. [“Nothing more strongly arouses our disgust than cannibalism, yet we make the same impression on Buddhists and vegetarians, for we feed on babies, though not our own.” Robert Louis Stevenson.] Either way, the extinction scenario for predatory lifeforms needs to be taken seriously - but not out of naïve moralism. The committed abolitionist may tentatively predict that centuries hence lions will not exist outside the digital archives - any more than the smallpox virus. For that matter, one may tentatively predict that the same fate will befall feral Homo sapiens. The conditionally activated capacity to act in bloodthirsty and sexually aggressive ways has been genetically adaptive in the past. We are all the descendants of murderers and rapists. Thus geneticists claim that over 16 million people today may be descended from Genghis Khan. But prediction is not advocacy.
Moreover, even if - contrary to what is argued here - one believes that lions and cheetahs are inherently valuable in exactly their current guise, there is still an opportunity-cost to their existence - where the opportunity-cost is the value of the next best alternative creature forgone as the result of choosing one lifeform over another. Are members of the cat family really ideal lifeforms? In a world of finite resources, only a small spectrum of phenotypes can be expressed out of the entire abstract state-space of possible genomes. Assume, as seems likely, that (post)humans will shortly have demigod-like powers over what kinds of lifeform and modes of consciousness the living world sustains. Ecological resources - and indeed mass-energy itself - will still be finite. If we opt to instantiate lions, then their existence entails depriving other species of life. So to judge that lions should exist is to affirm that it is better, in some sense, that sociopathic killing machines prowl the Earth rather than alternative herbivores. Taken literally, this argument ultimately applies to archaic Homo sapiens too. Is the source code of our constituent matter and energy optimally organized? Or would our DNA be better reconfigured to encode a species of blissfully superintelligent “smart angels”? The difference is that archaic humans will most likely become extinct not through outside agency, but as we progressively rewrite our own source code, reprogram “human nature”, and bootstrap away into becoming posthuman.
Alternatively, should carnivorous predators be genetically “reprogrammed” or otherwise behaviourally modified rather than allowed to go extinct in the “wild”? Pre-reflectively, such reprogramming is all but impossible. In practice, the technical expertise is probably a few decades away at most. One can see anticipations of post-Darwinian life even now, albeit at the level of individuals rather than whole species.
a) One example of behavioural management technology at work is the creation of remote-controlled rats (“ratbots”). Electrodes implanted in the pleasure centres of a rat’s brain can make the rat follow instructions of its own volition, so to speak, at least from the perspective of the rat. Investigators currently anticipate that such enhanced rodents could be used to search for landmines or buried (human) victims of earthquakes. In the future, there is nothing to stop such technology being widely installed - together with mini-cameras and GPS tracking devices - in predatory carnivores to deter sociopathic violence against other sentient lifeforms. Indeed with the right reinforcement schedule, the most ferocious carnivore could be turned into a model citizen in our wildlife parks. With suitable surveillance and computer control, whole communities of ex-predators could be discreetly guided in the norms of non-violent behaviour.
No “inhumanity” would be involved in the behavioural reshaping process since at no time are the brain’s pain-centres stimulated. Nor does the augmented animal ever experience a sense of being made to act against its will. Yes, the ex-predator is “enslaved” to its reward circuitry; but so are humans. [“All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.” Blaise Pascal.] Indeed indefinitely generous doses of pure pleasure could be administered to members of the managed species in reward for “virtuous” behaviour.
Conversely, members of “prey” species can be bio-engineered to lose their currently well-justified terror of predators.
Again, this re-engineering sounds technically daunting. Yet recall how rodents infected with the parasitic protozoan Toxoplasma gondii lose their normal fears and actually seek out cat urine-marked areas. Pharmacology, neuroelectrodes and genetic technologies all offer possible solutions to the molecular pathology of fear when its persistence becomes functionally redundant. In the long run, the same kinds of hedonic enrichment, intelligence-amplification and life-extension technologies available to humans later this century can be extended across the phylogenetic tree. “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”, affirms the World Health Organization constitution. The abolitionist project broadens this pledge of complete physical, mental and social well-being beyond our own species to (ultimately) all sentient beings. Any such extension sounds fanciful now. So too would a description of contemporary human healthcare 200 years ago. The same ethical principle is at stake. Counter-intuitively, the “law of accelerating returns” of computer processing-power means that the transition to universal well-being could be accomplished in decades rather than millennia if a human governmental consensus existed - though centuries might be a more conservative timeframe for marine ecosystems.
b) Another anticipation of how reprogramming might work is found “naturally” in the wild. Between 2002 and 2004 a lioness christened Kamunyak [“The Blessed One” in Samburuin] in central Kenya repeatedly adopted a baby oryx, at least six times in all, protecting each baby oryx from other predators, including leopards and kindred hungry lions. Kamunyak even allowed a mother oryx occasionally to come and feed her calf before chasing her away. “The lioness must have a mental aberration”, stated a UNESCO official in Nairobi. In principle, the hypernurturing behaviour of eusocial mammals like lions could be harnessed in genetically tweaked carnivores to protect members of species they currently predate. On this scenario, a ready dietary supply of cultured meat would have to be laid on as well unless more radical genetic interventions were made to alter existing lion physiology. Today, in vitro meat exists only as a laboratory curiosity. Commercial products are a decade or more away. But mass-producing cultured meat for “wild” or domestic carnivores should prove easier than creating the textures of genetically engineered meat needed to satisfy the more exacting tastes of gourmet human diners.
The technical details of such a program are of course challenging, to say the least. Nature has few food chains in the strict sense; complex food webs abound. But an ecosystem can support only around five or six trophic levels between its effectively insentient primary producers and the large predatory carnivores at the top of the trophic pyramid. For only 10% or so of an organism’s energy is passed on to its predator; the rest is lost as heat to the environment. So the problems of humane ecosystem management should be computationally tractable in a well-run wildlife park. The entire African lion population is currently believed to be around 30,000, down from around 400,000 in 1950. Lion numbers are dwindling fast due to habitat loss and conflicts with humans. The remaining lion populations are often geographically isolated from each other. So inbreeding and a lack of genetic diversity are increasing. Outside of zoos and “wildlife” parks, lions will soon die out in the absence of human intervention, as will most large terrestrial mammals this century in the wake of habitat degradation. For instance, the Earth’s most species-rich biome, tropical evergreen forest, is being lost at around two percent each year. Reprogramming and behavioural management technology can guarantee the civilised survival of reformed lions and their relatives for human ecotourists to enjoy, if we so choose.
One critical response to the prospect of reprogramming carnivorous predators runs as follows. A quasi-domesticated lion that does not prey on members of other species has ceased to be a true lion. Lions, by their very nature, kill members of prey species (and sometimes hyenas, cheetahs and each other). Yes, lions kill their victims in gruesome ways described as “bestial” if done by humans; but such behaviour is perfectly natural if practised by lions: it’s one aspect of their “behavioural phenotype”. Hunting behaviour is a natural part of their species essence.
Yet here we come to the nub of the issue: the alleged moral force of the term “natural”. If any creature, by its very nature, causes terrible suffering, albeit unwittingly, is it morally wrong to change that nature? If a civilised human were to come to believe s/he had been committing acts that caused grievous pain for no good reason, then s/he would stop - and want other moral agents to prevent the recurrence of such behaviour. May we assume that the same would be true of a lion, if the lion were morally and cognitively “uplifted” so as to understand the ramifications of what it was doing? Or a housecat tormenting a mouse? Or indeed a human sociopath?
Currently, sociopathy in humans cannot be cured; but various interventions, both genetic and pharmacological, have been mooted. When the therapeutic option does exist, should the treatment be offered? At present sociopathic human serial killers must be locked up for life. A “cure” that enabled human serial killers to become truly pro-social, empathetic beings would indeed “rob” them of their former identity. Such an intervention would be “coercive”, maybe not in the strict sense, but effectively so if the alternative is being locked up indefinitely. The same is true of violent repeat sex-offenders. Now consider another form of behaviour in lions whose practice by humans would spell incarceration for life. A mature male lion is genetically programmed to go into a pride, challenge the reigning male, and (if the invading male is victorious) methodically kill off the young cubs of the defeated male. Killing his rival’s cubs helps maximize the inclusive fitness of his DNA. Their mother will then go on heat again so the invading male lion can mate with her and sire his own cubs. Around a third of all lion cubs born perish in this way.
Mercifully, nothing so mechanistic plays out with human stepfathers and young stepchildren. But statistically, it is immensely more risky to be raised as a stepchild than by both one’s biological parents. If there were therapeutic interventions that could help stifle hostile feelings on the part of stepfathers to young stepchildren, would their use be desirable? Many stepfathers, for instance, might welcome their availability. Otherwise decent parents may be disturbed by the hostile feelings they feel toward their stepchildren - even though the vast majority of stepparents do not act on them in the extreme form practised by male lions. Infanticide is cruel irrespective of the species identity of the perpetrator. In the future, interventions can prevent its occurrence in our wildlife parks even at the price of tweaking the “natural” genomes of their members.
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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