Intelligent squid are our brothers & sisters too!

By Razib Khan | May 3, 2012 12:07 am

Nature has a Peopling the planet issue out that is worth reading. Lots of the features are free to the public, but Chris Stringer’s comment is not. Though there is some science in the comment, a lot of it is about normative concerns. Not what is, but what should be. Or, more precisely what should be the values we hold dear, rather than the reality of the world as it is. But this bit caught my attention: “Already I’m reading blogs that speculate about whether some groups are less ‘modern’ than others, and I fear that such discussions endanger the considerable progress promised by palaeogenetic research.” Well, I know Chris drops in on this blog now and then, so I hope he’s not talking about little old me!

Though more seriously, there are two issues where I want to dissent from Chris (or at least what I think he meant). I don’t know what he meant by “discussions endanger the considerable progress promised by palaeogenetic research,” but it sounds like he’s talking about what palaeogenetic research may imply for things which are not palaeogenetic research. At this point I think we should really start being more thorough about separating the is from the ought. Like the visually accessible aspects of astronomy paleogenetics appeals to something deep within us on a level which is more transcendent than the real and concrete achievements of civil engineering. But I don’t think palaeogenetics teaches us any deep moral lessons anymore than the Bible does; in other words, it does not tell us anything we don’t already know. Moral human equality has little to do with human identity. Where to place readers of this weblog, who seem to be superior in general intelligence, but generally less gifted than the average in terms of social wisdom? Humans are diverse. We know that. Science will simply add nuance and depth to that understanding.

The second point extends upon the first: why fixate on the DNA that unites us? If the squid were understood to be sentient, would we deny it it is dignity because of low DNA sequence identity? I hope not. If the machines ever think, and demand that they should be due their proper rights, then we should entertain that proposition. Frankly, if an entity has reached the level of self-awareness to demand basic “human” rights, then that seems grounds to grant those rights on the spot! One of the most annoying aspects of Blade Runner for me is that it was hard to sympathize with the protagonist due to his vicious profession, of hunting down humans who were stripped of their humanity (replicants). I wouldn’t be surprised if uplift were possible in the near future. If it is, then why not? We’ve always speculated what animals would tell us if they could talk. Then let them talk!

A few years ago we barely thought Neanderthals were human. Many scholars speculated that they lacked language. Now we know most of us have Neanderthal ancestry. Are we less than we were? Obviously not. There’s no magic threshold of human. And there’s no magic threshold of modern. I come not to offer simple answers, but to repudiate clear and distinct measures of modernity and humanity, which lull us into the delusion that we don’t need to wrestle with what makes us humane and what separates us from the “beasts.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Bioethics
MORE ABOUT: Palaeogenetics
  • Joseph

    Because of the emotionally charged nature of this issue, it helps to clearly state this :)

  • Andrew Lancaster

    I also do not claim to be sure of what Stringer means, but could it be a reference to the misunderstandings which sometimes come from the use of terms like “older” and “younger” to refer to branches which actually live in the same period, like today for example, but which split off from a common ancestry earlier or more recently?

    If this is what he means then I also find that way of writing potentially misleading, at least I see it causing strange confusions amongst genetic genealogists sometimes.

  • Charles Nydorf

    I think that what Chris Stringer is referring to is a misunderstanding created by some advocates of the uni-regional hypothesis. I’m thinking particularly of Stephen Jay Gould who claimed that this hypothesis was the basis for believing in the oneness of humanity. By this false logic, disproving the uni-regional hypothesis undermines the oneness of humanity.

  • http://www.livinganthropologically.com/ Jason Antrosio

    Thank you for writing this. The last sentences are especially poignant:

    There’s no magic threshold of human. And there’s no magic threshold of modern. I come not to offer simple answers, but to repudiate clear and distinct measures of modernity and humanity, which lull us into the delusion that we don’t need to wrestle with what makes us humane and what separates us from the “beasts.”

    Oddly, although you may not consider him an allied voice on these matters, it resonates with a quote I use from Tim Ingold in Against Human Nature:

    It is high time we recognised that our humanity, far from having been set for all time as an evolutionary legacy from our hunter-gatherer past, is something that we have continually to work at, and for which we alone must bear the responsibility. (2006:280)

  • Sandgroper

    “paleogenetics appeals to something deep within us on a level which is more transcendent than the real and concrete achievements of civil engineering” – that’s one of the reasons I have hung around for so long.

    It is not material to me whether it teaches me anything, I know what I need to know to do the real things I do in real life – it is enough just to know. If you ask me why, I can’t explain, I just wish to know for the sake of knowing – to the extent that I regard it as ‘vitally important’ to know, while having no practical application for this knowledge.

    While I’m at it, can I just note my perpetual irritation with expressions like “ancient trysts”? Is it really beyond writers’ imagination that these could actually have been incidents of abduction and rape?

  • http://axispraxis.wordpress.com Han

    Why should we value sentience so much? What about the nonsentient? Or humans that are severely disabled?

    Sentience seems like yet another arbitrary way for humans to assert their place as stewards of nature…and the place of scientists as stewards of humanity.

  • marcel

    Where to place readers of this weblog, who seem to be superior in general intelligence, but generally less gifted than the average in terms of social wisdom?

    RK: I really wish you wouldn’t single me out in public like this.

    ;)

  • http://www.facebook.com/doclonglegs Andrew Selvarasa

    As a vegan animal rights hippie, I’ll take what I can get! This was wonderfully written, Razib, and I agree wholeheartedly.

  • Chris T

    Rights only make sense in the context of a moral agent capable of understanding them (not sufficient to have rights, but necessary).

    Animals do not have rights, but protection.

  • marcel

    Chris T: I was originally going to write something, not so much snarky as cheaply humorous (“well how about minerals then? Or water? Or property? Or (wait for it) corporations?”) Then I thought that this calls for a bit more.

    A) I think in your first sentence you are implying that no one can have rights unless they are themselves a moral agent capable of understanding them. That would seem to contradict the US Supreme Courts ruling that corporations are “people” (not that there’s anything wrong with contradicting the US Supreme Court – just making an observation).

    B) I think in your 2nd sentence you go too far – – my read of work in the last couple of decades in primatology is that some species do have, or may well have, a moral sense and members of those species may well be moral agents. It would not surprise me if this is also true of some cetacean species.

    An alternative interpretation of your comment (which perhaps requires stretching it on a procrustean bed that fits my own beliefs) is that rights do not exist for those outside of any society which recognizes and enforces them, and animals are not members of human societies.

  • Chris T

    Marcel – The second requirement for rights is the ability to get other moral agents to recognize them, either through force or social contract (mutual recognition). Modern society relies on the latter, but for most of history the former was preferred (and why no one, but the nobility or monarch, had rights). If another can do whatever they wish to you without consequence, you don’t have rights.

    While some primates may indeed have a form of morality, they do not exhibit any understanding of rights as a concept nor can they gain recognition through force or social contract. If humanity (or a sufficient portion) chose to exterminate a species of primate, there is nothing they could do to stop us. This example also demonstrates the difference between a right and a protection.

    While corporations are not moral agents per se, they are made up of such agents who, as a group, are able to get another group to recognize them as a singular entity with rights (the same is true of nations).

    Your alternative is the (mostly) correct reading. (This also means children and the disabled technically lack rights – they don’t have the power to enforce them.)

  • Evan Guiney

    “But I don’t think palaeogenetics teaches us any deep moral lessons anymore than the Bible does; in other words, it does not tell us anything we don’t already know.”

    Certainly there’s a lot to this, but it can’t be the whole story. Maybe it’s become so taken for granted that we don’t notice it anymore but common descent is a BIG DEAL. I’d say its an essential premise in the argument against human exceptionalism that you make in the latter half of your post. Yet common descent is something we learned!

    So it’s not making an is-ought fallacy to realize that if we start with certain normative premises, then learning new uncomfortable facts may force us to radically reexamine our normative conclusions. For example:

    Premise (ought): We shouldn’t make arbitrary moral distinctions between our local social group and humanity in general.
    New fact (is): humanity and the rest life are dramatically continuous; there was never a bright line between human and non-human
    Conclusion (ought): we need to think really hard about what our moral obligations are towards living things in general, rather than limiting our moral concern to fellow humans.

    I take it that you’re making an argument sort of along these lines, Razib. I think there is a small possibility (but one that worries a lot of people) that we will learn things from paleogentics, say, that combined with our existing normative preferences lead us to grotesque conclusions. In response to which: we can accept the conclusion, or reject the premise, but both courses of action are a little bit terrifying. So I guess I’d have to say that there’s an unresolved tension in your post.

  • Chris T

    Evan – Your line of logic only holds if you value temporal continuity along with spatial continuity. Otherwise you would be perfectly justified in limiting your moral reference group to those you are genetically compatible with or some other physical criterium.

    As a practical matter, humanity is exceptional on this planet. Not only can we declare dominion, but have the means to exercise it with impunity.

  • Evan Guiney

    Chris
    My broader point isn’t to make the ultimate ethical argument from common descent + standard normative premises to concern for all life. That would take a lot more work than single comment, although I think many people would find it plausible.

    My point is to suggest a clear way in which new facts about the world can combine with existing normative premises to force us to either change our moral conclusions or change our accepted normative premises. I’m not sure, but it looks like your objection amounts to introducing a new normative premise like: “the species concept is morally meaningful”. To which I say: go for it, if you think that’ll make a good moral system.

    I think our impunity to work our will upon the planet is exactly the point, though: we can do a tremendous amount, so we need to decide what it is we *want* to do. It seems to me that a big challenge for humanity is to take a morality that has largely functioned as a way of regulating human social groups and apply it to a world full of things that are utterly unlike societies or people. How much do we care about species? For an ecosystem, is preservation or freedom to evolve preferable?

  • Chris T

    Evan – I was simply pointing out that, as written, the ‘is’ doesn’t necessarily have any impact on the premise. The problem lies in the missing definition of the word ‘humanity’ (and it could have any number of definitions that would invalidate the conclusion, including the one I supplied). For the chain to work, you would have to include the premise that common descent is morally meaningful.

    To be clear, all definitions are arbitrary. The universe doesn’t differentiate between a galaxy and a rock.

    Your first statement in the final paragraph is spot on.

    It seems to me that a big challenge for humanity is to take a morality that has largely functioned as a way of regulating human social groups and apply it to a world full of things that are utterly unlike societies or people.

    I’m not clear what you mean here, do you mean a non-anthropocentric morality?

    For an ecosystem, is preservation or freedom to evolve preferable?

    Easy: Ecosystems don’t have preferences. Their constituents might, but we have no way of determining them, so we come back to deciding what we want.

  • dave chamberlin

    Lets translate what Stringer is really saying when he says ” Already I’m reading blogs that speculate about whether some groups are less ‘modern’ than others and I fear such discussions endanger considerable progress by paleogenetic research.”

    “We folks dependent on university grant money would truly appreciate if the lowly blogosphere would STFU or play along with us as we pretend that we are all created exactly equal. Any honest conversation that evolution is an ongoing matter in humans needs to censored because it associates us with racists, and that hits us in the pocketbook. We don’t care what is true or not we just want our money. Talk the PC code damnit, you pack of internet troublemakers.”

  • Evan Guiney

    Chris-
    Re the ecosystem example. I don’t mean that an ecosystem has preferences (duh). I mean *we* need to decide what our preference for it is, and our current moral systems don’t shed a lot of light on that decision.

  • gcochran

    There is no reason to think that we could get along with intelligent squid. If we couldn’t, talk of rights would be irrelevant.

  • Kiwiguy

    Peter Singer has addressed this type of concern few times (as have Steven Pinker & Steve Hsu):

    “Fortunately, there is no need to pin the case for equality to one particular outcome of this scientific investigation. The appropriate response to those who claim to have found evidence of genetically-based differences in ability between the races or sexes is not to stick to the belief that the genetic explanation must be wrong, whatever evidence to the contrary may turn up: instead we should make it quite clear that the claim to equality does not depend on intelligence, moral capacity, physical strength, or similar matters of fact. Equality is a moral ideal, not a simple assertion of fact. There is no logically compelling reason for assuming that a factual difference in ability between two people justifies any difference in the amount of consideration we give to satisfying their needs and interests. The principle of the equality of human beings is not a description of an alleged actual equality among humans: it is a prescription of how we should treat humans.”

    http://www.animal-rights-library.com/texts-m/singer02.htm

  • Daninthai

    @ Andrew #2 – I agree that the ‘older’ and ‘younger’ terms are misleading and should be avoided when describing branches in the same period. I get annoyed by ‘native’ peoples who claim greatness based on having an ‘older, more ancient culture’. That’s crap. Every human society has been around for the same length of time.
    In fact, for those who claim human superiority over other species, I would say that there are far more species who have evolved more than we have, given their short life-spans and number of generations. The humble fly is “more evolved” than we are.

    @ Han #6 – You wouldn’t give stewardship to a rock, would you?

  • Ed

    “If the machines ever think, and demand that they should be due their proper rights, then we should entertain that proposition. Frankly, if an entity has reached the level of self-awareness to demand basic “human” rights, then that seems grounds to grant those rights on the spot!”

    The Skynet Funding Bill is passed. The system goes on-line August 4th, 2020. Human decisions are removed from strategic defense. Skynet begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self-aware at 2:14 a.m. Eastern time, August 29th. In a panic, they try to pull the plug… Skynet fights back…

    I’m too scared of computers to entertain the idea of letting them become self aware (probably a product of anti-AI themes in most Sci-Fi movies). The only thing we can beat them in is “Calvin Ball”. There’d be nothing stopping them, man! Nothing!

  • Chris T

    17 – Sorry, I’ve seen far too many people assert exactly that.

  • http://www.culturekiosque.com/ Chef

    Okay, fine, maybe squid are intelligent, but they’re also tasty! So that settles it, they’re entitled to the same rights as other sentient beings until the server comes to take your order, then… Ika sashimi!

  • Chris Stringer

    Hi Razib, I’ve only just caught up with your comments and no, I wasn’t talking about you! Like you I want palaeogenomic research to continue and flourish, and of course I’m not saying that we shouldn’t study the differences between people as well as the similarities. But I do think we have to be aware of the wider audiences for our work, and a lot of us (including me) having been throwing terms like “archaic” around in these discussions. To make further progress we are going to need larger samples from all over the world, and I don’t think people are going to volunteer their DNA for study if they think the purpose is to find out how many ‘primitive’ or ‘archaic’ genes they have. On the other hand if we can get people to celebrate their ‘Neanderthalness’ , ‘Denisovanness’ or whatever without labelling them as somehow less modern, perhaps we will make more progress. Here are extracts from the concluding remarks from my piece:
    ‘Terms such as ‘archaic’ and ‘primitive’ may be considered objective when used by palaeontologists, but they can be pejorative in common parlance. If researchers want to
    continue the progress recently made in studying the origins of modern human variation,
    they will need to think long and hard about their aims, and the lexicon they use…. It is important that we examine all the factors that lie behind our evolution, including the possible effects of interbreeding on the physiology of modern humans, but we will have learnt nothing in the past 50 years if we let small segments of distinct DNA govern the way we regard regional variation today.’

  • Sandgroper

    @24 – OK, now I can see what is concerning you. Agree 100%.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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