BLTC logo

Reprogramming Predators

adult lion and young antelope

“And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the
calf and the young lion and the fatling together and a little child shall lead them."

Isaiah 11:6

"The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the
minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, others are
running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping
parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst and disease. It must be so."

Richard Dawkins
River Out of Eden (1995)

The Problem of Predation

A biosphere without suffering is technically feasible. In principle, science can deliver a cruelty-free world that lacks the molecular signature of unpleasant experience. Not merely can a living world support human life based on genetically preprogrammed gradients of well-being. If carried to completion, the abolitionist project entails ecosystem redesign, cross-species immunocontraception, marine nanorobots, rewriting the vertebrate genome, and harnessing the exponential growth of computational resources to manage a compassionately run global ecosystem. Ultimately, it's an ethical choice whether intelligent agents opt to create such a world - or instead express our natural status quo bias and perpetuate the biology of suffering indefinitely.

This utopian-sounding vision isn't the upshot of some exotic new ethical theory. The abolitionist project follows quite straightforwardly from the application of a classical utilitarian ethic and advanced biotechnology. More controversially, the abolitionist project is the scientific expression of what Gautama Buddha aspired to some 2500 years ago: "May all that have life be delivered from suffering". Provisionally, let's assume that other things being equal, a cruelty-free world is ethically desirable, i.e. ideally, no sentient being would ever undergo involuntary physical or emotional pain. As our technology matures, some hard choices are ethically unavoidable if these noble sentiments are ever to be turned into practice.

First, a cruelty-free world entails a transition to global veganism. Realistically, global veganism won't come about purely or even mainly via moral persuasion alone within any plausible timeframe. Such a momentous transition can come about only after the advent of mass-produced artificial meat ("Krea") that is at least as cheap, tasty and healthy as flesh from slaughtered factory-farmed animals - with moral argument playing a modest supporting role. For sure, there is still the "yuk factor" to overcome. But when delicious, cruelty-free cultured-meat products become commercially available, the "yuk factor" should actually work in favour of cultured meat - since meat from factory-farmed animals is not merely morally disgusting but often physically disgusting too.

However, this transition isn't enough. Even the hypothetical world-wide adoption of a cruelty-free diet leaves one immense source of suffering untouched. Here we shall explore one of the thorniest issues in abolitionist bioethics: the future of what biologists call obligate predators. For the abolitionist project seems inconsistent with one of our basic contemporary values. The need for species conservation is so axiomatic that an explicitly normative scientific sub-discipline, conservation biology, exists to promote it. In the modern era, the extinction of a species is usually accounted a tragedy, especially if that species is a prominent vertebrate rather than an obscure beetle. Yet if we seriously want a world without suffering, how many existing Darwinian life-forms can be conserved in their current guise? What should be the ultimate fate of iconic species like the large carnivores? True, only a minority of the Earth's species are carnivorous predators: the fundamental laws of thermodynamics entail that whenever there is an "exchange of energy" between one trophic level and another, there is a significant loss. The majority of the planet's 50,000 or so vertebrate species are vegetarian. But among the minority of carnivorous species are some of the best known creatures on the planet. Should these serial killers be permitted to prey on other sentient beings indefinitely?

A few forms of extinction are almost universally applauded even now. Thus the demise of the smallpox virus in the wild is wholly unlamented, though controversy persists over whether the last two pathogenic Variola copies in human custody should be destroyed. The virus could be recreated from scratch if needed. Technically, viruses aren't alive; they can't independently replicate. Yet the same welcome will be extended to the extinction of scores of bacterial pathogens that cause human disease if we can plot their eradication as efficiently as the two Variola variants that cause smallpox. Likewise, exterminating the five kinds of protozoan parasites of the genus Plasmodium that cause malaria would be almost entirely uncontentious; a human child dies from malaria on average every twelve seconds. Protozoans have zero consciousness or minimal consciousness, depending on one's ultimate theory of mind. Either way, it makes no sense or minimal sense to speak literally of the "interests" of a plasmodium. Only figuratively do plasmodia have interests. Plasmodia matter significantly only insofar as their existence affects the welfare of sentient beings. Our reverence for the diversity of life has its limits. More complicated than plasmodia are parasitic worms, locusts or cockroaches, which almost certainly do have at least limited consciousness. Yet that consciousness is still comparatively dim compared to vertebrates. Cockroaches have decentralised nervous systems. In consequence, they presumably lack a unitary experiential field. This is not to say that cockroaches should ever be wantonly hurt. Perhaps their constituent nerve ganglia in individual segments experience sharp micro-pains; cockroaches retain rudimentary learning skills and live for up to a week without a head. Yet if the world's 4000 species of cockroach were no longer extant outside a handful of vivaria, then their absence in the wild would be accounted no great loss on any plausible version of the felicific calculus. Nor would extinction of the swarming grasshoppers we know as plagues of locusts. A swarm of 50 billion locusts can in theory eat 100,000 tonnes of foodstuffs per day. Around 20% of food grown for human consumption is eaten by herbivorous insects. A truly utopian future world would lack even minuscule insect pangs of hunger, and its computational resources could micro-manage the well-being of the humblest arthropods - including the Earth's estimated 10 quintillion (1018) insects. In the meantime, we must prioritise. On a neoBuddhist or utilitarian ethic, the criterion of value and moral status is degree of sentience. In a Darwinian world, the welfare of some beings depends on their doing harm to others. So initially, ugly compromises are inevitable as we bootstrap our way out of primordial Darwinian life. Research must focus on how the ugliness of the transitional era can be minimised.

More controversial than the case of tapeworms, cockroaches or locusts would be reprogramming or phasing out snakes and crocodiles. Snakes and crocodiles cause innumerable hideous deaths in the world each day. They are also part of our familiar conceptual landscape thanks to movies, zoos, TV documentaries, and the like - though a relaxed tolerance of their activities is easier in the comfortable West than for, say, a grieving Indian mother who has lost her child to a snakebite. Snakes are responsible for over 50,000 human deaths each year.

Most controversial of all, however, would be the extinction - or genetically-driven behavioural modification - of members of the cat family. We'll focus here on felines rather than the "easy" cases like parasitic tapeworms or cockroaches because of the unique status of members of the cat family in contemporary human culture, both as pets/companion animals and as our romanticised emblems of "wildlife". Most contemporary humans have a strong aesthetic preference in favour of continued feline survival. Their existence in current guise is perhaps the biggest ethical/ideological challenge to the radical abolitionist. For our culture glorifies lions, with their iconic status as the King of the Beasts; we admire the grace and agility of a cheetah; the tiger is a symbol of strength, beauty and controlled aggression; the panther is dark, swift and elegant; and so forth. Innumerable companies and sports teams have enlisted one or other of the big cats for their logos as symbols of manliness and vigour. Moreover cats of the domestic variety are the archetypal household pets. The worldwide domestic cat population has been estimated at around 400 million. We romanticise their virtues and forgive their foibles, notably their playful torment of mice. Indeed rather than being an object of horror - and compassion for the mouse - the torment of mice has been turned into stylised entertainment. Hence Tom-and-Jerry cartoons. By contrast, talk of "eliminating" predation can sound sinister. What would "phasing out" or "reprogramming" predators mean in practice? Most disturbingly, such terms are evocative of genocide, not universal compassion.

Appearances deceive. To get a conceptual handle on what is really going on during "predation", let's compare our attitude to the fate of a pig or a zebra with the fate of an organism with whom those non-human animals are functionally equivalent, both intellectually and in their capacity to suffer, namely a human toddler. On those rare occasions when a domestic dog kills a baby or toddler, the attack is front-page news. The offending dog is subsequently put down. Likewise, lions in Africa who turn man-eater are tracked down and killed, regardless of their conserved status. This response isn't to imply lions - or for that matter rogue dogs - are morally culpable. But by common consent they must be prevented from killing any more human beings. By contrast, the spectacle of a lion chasing a terrified zebra and then asphyxiating its victim can be shown on TV as evening entertainment, edifying viewing even for children. How is this parallel relevant? Well, if our theory of value aspires to a God's-eye perspective, stripped of unwarranted anthropocentric bias in the manner of the physical sciences, then the well-being of a pig or a zebra inherently matters no less than the fate of a human baby - or any other organism endowed with an equivalent degree of sentience. If we are morally consistent, then as we acquire God-like powers over Nature's creatures, we should take analogous steps to secure their well-being too. Given our anthropocentric bias, thinking of non-human vertebrates not just as equivalent in moral status to toddlers or infants, but as though they were toddlers or infants, is a useful exercise. Such reconceptualisation helps correct our lack of empathy for sentient beings whose physical appearance is different from "us". Ethically, the practice of intelligent "anthropomorphism" shouldn't be shunned as unscientific, but embraced insofar as it augments our stunted capacity for empathy. Such anthropomorphism can be a valuable corrective to our cognitive and moral limitations. This is not a plea to be sentimental, simply for impartial benevolence. Nor is it even a plea to take "sides" between killer and prey. Human serial killers who prey on other humans need to be locked up. But ultimately, it's vindictive morally to blame them in any ultimate sense for the fate of their victims. Their behaviour supervenes on the fundamental laws of physics. Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner. Yet this indulgence doesn't extend to permitting them to kill again; and the abolitionist maintains the same principle holds good for nonhuman serial killers too. Compassionate conservation can benefit ravenous predators and terrified herbivores alike.

Parasites, Predators and Serial Killers

Suffocation induces a sense of extreme panic. It's a comparatively rare experience in contemporary human life, although panic disorder, an anxiety disorder characterised 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 even animal advocates 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 to 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 other 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 anaesthesia 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 generalise 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.

Extinction versus Reprogramming

1) Extinction

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 life-forms 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 the SS except in movies. Some monstrous life-forms 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 fetishising 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 empathising 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 life-forms 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 life-form over another. Are members of the cat family really ideal life-forms? 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 life-form 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.

2) Reprogramming

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 life-forms. 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. Recall Pascal: "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." 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 (s)he was doing? Or a house cat 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 unweaned cubs of the defeated male. Killing his rival's cubs helps maximise 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, to be raised as a stepchild is immensely more risky than being brought up 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 practised on a sentient being 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.

A Pan-Species Welfare State?

"He that slayeth an ox is as he that slayeth a man"
(Isaiah 66:3)

Over the last century, a welfare state for humans was introduced in Western European societies so that the most vulnerable members of our own species wouldn't suffer avoidable hardship. Even in affluent Western nations, notably in the USA, coverage can be woefully inadequate. Provision in Third World nations ranges from the adequate to patchy to almost non-existent. And by the standards of posterity, all contemporary healthcare will presumably seem rudimentary. But a commitment to the underlying principle, at least, is well-established: no one should literally starve or suffer death or debility from preventable illness. Likewise, universal education is designed to maximise life opportunities for all. Universal healthcare aims to ensure everyone gets medical treatment. Child-support agencies intervene when vulnerable children are at risk of abuse or neglect. Initially, Social Darwinists decried the introduction of such safeguards; eugenicists fretted that a welfare state would allow the "unfit" to breed and propagate "bad" genes; free-market fundamentalists worried that a safety-net would sap habits of manly self-reliance; and so forth. Yet the need for at least basic welfare guarantees now seems obvious, though controversy persists over their nature and optimal extent - and financing. Social Darwinism in its rawest form now has few defenders beyond devotees of Ayn Rand. The problem is not just that existing welfare provision is inadequate: it's also arbitrarily species-specific. In common with the plight of vulnerable humans before its introduction, the welfare of vulnerable non-human animals depends mostly on private charity. No universal guarantees of non-human well-being exist. Vivisection, the abomination of factory-farming, and the industrialized mass-killing of nonhuman animals persists unchecked. Beyond our closest cousins the great apes, the systematic extension of state-enforced welfare guarantees to other species in the wild, sounds too far-fetched an option to generate sustained critical analysis. Proverbially, charity begins at home; let's worry about "our" species first. No great ideological debate has erupted on the case for compassionate ecosystem redesign because the case for preserving the ecological status quo is perceived as too obvious to need defending; and the transformative potential of biotech, infotech and nanotech is still barely glimpsed. Traditionally, of course, Nature has just seemed too big. Insofar as any justification at all has been felt necessary for wild animal suffering, the narrative told to rationalise the cruelties of Nature has claimed that predation of the sick and the weak is for "the good of the species". This fable is no longer scientifically tenable. Natural selection doesn't operate on that level. Further, it is equally un-Darwinian to suppose there is some fundamental ontological and ethical gulf between "us" and "them", between primates of the genus Homo and nonhuman animals. On any universal ethic, the inclusive rather than contrastive use of "we" must extend to all sentient beings.

However, the most formidable obstacle to reprogramming predators and designing compassionate ecosystems isn't ideology but simple status quo bias. Most of the arguments elaborated against abolishing suffering in humans don't even get off the ground in nonhumans. The anguish of members of others species will not inspire its victims to create great works of art or literature, build their characters, afford interesting contrasts, allow opportunities for personal growth, and so on. Their suffering is just nasty and inherently pointless. On the face of it, reprogramming the source code of the rest of the living world is orders of magnitude computationally harder than re-engineering humans. But the immensity of task shouldn't be overstated. CRISPR genome-editing technologies are a game-changer. The technical challenges of reprogramming nonhuman animals are in some respects easier to overcome than in humans. Thus one of the most formidable stumbling-blocks to sustainable mood-enrichment in humans isn't engineering raw pleasure - wireheading or speedballing could do that now. What's hard is reprogramming our reward circuitry in ways than don't compromise our social responsibility and cognitive performance - not just on gross measures of the sorts of cleverness scored by IQ tests, but subtler abilities involving creativity, empathetic understanding, introspective self-insight - and perhaps too the capacity for fundamental self-doubt from which future intellectual revolutions may spring. In short, the challenge lies in preventing the superhappy from becoming either "opiated" or manic. Similar constraints on the future happiness of nonhuman animals either don't apply to the same degree or don't apply at all. The prospect of "lions on soma" may be surreal; but it's difficult to see how its introduction could be judged reckless or immoral.

Clearly as it stands, the abolitionist project is more of a sketch than a blueprint. So one urgent priority is the creation of academic research programs so that abolitionist scholarship can become a rigorous scientific discipline. Such a discipline will not be value-free; but nor will it be any more normative than conservation biology - or scientific medicine. A critical aspect of advanced ecosystem redesign will be prior computational modelling - the exhaustive hunt for previously unanticipated side-effects of interventions at different trophic levels in the "food chain". Philosophical manifestos can gloss over technical difficulties; wildlife park management teams will need to confront them. Either way, abolitionism needs to enter the academic and political mainstream, with organisational structures and advocacy groups to match. A cruelty-free world will entail coordinated national, intergovernmental and United Nations action on an unprecedented scale.

Understandably, sceptics can dismiss such scenarios as sheer technofantasy. The sociological, ethico-religious and ideological obstacles to the design of a cruelty-free planetary ecosystem can seem insurmountable even if its ultimate technical feasibility is acknowledged. But predicting the growth of a global anti-speciesist ethic to complement an anti-racist ethic isn't as unreasonable as it first sounds. Consider the central dogmas of the world's major religions. To what extent is the abolitionist project a disguised implication of some of our core principles? Ahimsa, the Sanskrit term meaning to do no harm (literally: the avoidance of violence - himsa) is central to the family of religions originating in ancient India: Hinduism, Buddhism and especially Jainism. Ahimsa is a rule of conduct that bars the killing or injuring of living beings. The ecosystem redesign advocated here is essentially the scientific expression of ahimsa on a global scale, shorn of its karmic metaphysics. It's true that Judaeo-Christian and Islamic religion have been less sympathetic historically to the interests of nonhuman animals than the non-Abrahamic traditions of the Indian subcontinent. Throughout much of the Christian era, vegetarianism in Western Europe was regarded as a heresy. God's Biblical promise of "dominion" over the rest of the animal kingdom has standardly been interpreted as divine license for domination and exploitation. Yet "dominion" can also be (re)interpreted as responsibility for stewardship. What if Isaiah is correct and the wolf and the lion really can lie down with the lamb? Would a compassionate God want us to preserve the biology of suffering when its perpetuation becomes optional? Recall too that (with one exception) each of the 114 suras of the Islamic Qur'an begins, "Allah is merciful and compassionate." The name of God used most often in the Qur'an is "al-Rahim", meaning literally "the All-Compassionate." Any implication that God's compassion is stunted compared to the moral imagination of mere mortals might seem blasphemous. Muhammad the Prophet speaks of the need for "universal mercy". According to one tradition (Hadith Mishkat 3:1392) Muhammad taught that "all creatures are like a family of God; and He loves the most those who are the most beneficent to His family." As infotech, nanorobotics and biotechnology mature - or accelerate - perhaps religious and secular ethicists alike will treat the maximal relief of suffering as the default assumption from which departures need to be justified, not a radical new ethic in need of justification itself. On almost every future scenario, we're destined to "play God". So let's aim to be compassionate gods and replace the cruelty of Darwinian life with something better.

David Pearce (2009; last updated 2015.)
German & Portuguese & Swedish & Spanish
Critical Feedback

BLTC Research
Emotional Pain
Life without Pain
Quantum Ethics?
Utopian Surgery?
The End of Suffering
Riley Day Syndrome
Wirehead Hedonism
Quora Questions (1)
Quora Questions (2)
The Good Drug Guide
Paradise Engineering
Quotations on Suffering
Quora Answers (2015-23)
MDMA: Utopian Pharmacology
Conservation Biology: resources
Crabs Suffer and Remember Pain
The Antispeciesist Revolution (2012)
Happiness and the Hedonic Treadmill
Critique of Huxley's Brave New World
ChatGPT on Reprogramming Predators
The Abolitionist Project (podcast 15Mb)
New Harvest: Advancing Meat Substitutes
Should the Lion Eat Straw Like the Ox? (pdf)
Emotional vs physical pain. Which is worse?
La reprogramación de los animales predadores
Kamunyak, the lioness who adopted baby antelopes
The Importance of Wild-Animal Suffering (Alan Dawrst)
The End of Suffering ? / Humanity Plus Conference, 2010
Can CRISPR-based 'Gene Drives' Create a Happy Biosphere? (2016)
El imperativo de abolir el sufrimiento: una entrevista con David Pearce
A Welfare State For Elephants? A Case Study of Compassionate Stewardship (2012)
Conservation Biology versus Compassionate Biology" (Santa Maria, 2012) (PDF)
& (PPT)