Biological uplift is a term for the act of an advanced civilization helping the development of another species. The term originated in science fiction writer David Brin’s Uplift series, and similar concepts are found in other science fiction works.
IEET’s George Dvorskyhas written a paper, All Together Now: Developmental and Ethical Considerations for biologically uplifting nonhuman animals, advocating that serious consideration should be given to including other species in a future where humans transcend their biology.
History of the Concept
The concept can be traced to H. G. Wells’ novel The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), in which the eponymous scientist transforms animals into horrifying parodies of men through surgery and psychological torment. The resulting animal-people obsessively recite the Law, a series of prohibitions against reversion to animal behaviors, with the haunting refrain of “Are we not men?” Wells’ novel reflects Victorian concerns about vivisection and of the power of unrestrained scientific experimentation to do terrible harm.
Another well-known early literary example can be found in the underpeople of Cordwainer Smith’s Instrumentality of Mankind series. In Smith’s universe, the underpeople were created from animals through unexplained technological means explicitly to be servants of humanity, and are often treated as less than slaves by the society that uses them. However, Smith’s characterizations of individual underpeople are frequently quite sympathetic, and one of his most memorable characters is C’Mell, the cat-woman who appears in The Ballad of Lost C’Mell (1962) and Norstrilia (1975).
David Brin has stated that his Uplift universe was written at least in part in response to the common assumption in earlier science fiction such as Smith’s work and Planet of the Apes that uplifted animals would, or even should, be treated as possessions rather than people. As a result, a significant part of the conflict in the series revolves around the differing policies of Galactics and humans toward their client races. Galactic races traditionally hold their uplifted “clients” in a hundred-millennium-long indenture, during which the “patrons” have extensive rights and claims over clients’ lives and labor power. In contrast, humans have given their uplifted dolphins and chimpanzees near-equal civil rights, with a few legal and economic disabilities related to their unfinished state.
In the universe of Mass Effect, it is implied that in permissive regions (Europe and the US) on Earth, in the early 22nd Century, it was quite common to uplift animal species and even have custom-built lifeforms, but that this practice was eventually outlawed over the ethical questions raised by such acts.
2001: A Space Odyssey implies at least cultural uplift if not outright biological uplift of humanity by the monoliths. The novel’s sequels imply that, later, life forms indigenous to Europa are uplifted by the same alien technological artifacts.
The Great Ape Project