March 10, 2004
Human Brain Size Regulating Gene To Be Inserted Into Mice

A previous FuturePundit post reported on the work of Bruce Lahn at the University of Chicago in exploring the evolution of the Abnormal Spindle-Like Microcephaly Associated (ASPM) gene. Mutations in ASPM have played a key role in causing the evolutionary lineage leading up to modern humans to develop bigger and smarter brains. Well, a recent report on Lahn's work that covers much the same ground but ends with a very intriguing mention of Lahn's next step: insertion of the human ASPM gene into mice.

In future experiments, Lahn will insert the human ASPM gene into mice to see what affect it has on brain development. He hopes to reconstruct the detailed story of how the human brain grew and changed as the result of natural selection, thereby creating the thing that makes us each unique—the human mind.

The creation of transgenic mice using a human gene which plays a role in determining brain could potentially produce a larger brained and smarter mouse. That outcome is by no means assured. Yet this real-life experiment brings to mind David Brin's Uplift Saga series of books including Sundiver, the Hugo and Nebula award winning Startide Rising, and The Uplift War. The term "uplift" in this context refers to the lifting up of less intelligent species to a level of sentience similar to that of humans. In Brin's saga humanity has used genetic engineering to uplift both chimpanzees and dolphins into human-like sentience.

It seems inevitable (barring the extinction of the human race in the next few decades) that the knowledge will be found for how to genetically engineer human-level intelligence into other species. At the same time, the knowledge will also be found for how to genetically engineer humans to be much smarter. Once DNA sequencing becomes cheap enough just the ability to compare the DNA sequences of humans of different levels of intelligence will lead to the discovery of many variations that will allow the average level of intelligence to be boosted quite dramatically. Building on that knowledge will be possible to discover variations that have not yet happened in humans that will allow an even greater boosting of human intelligence to levels not seen in any humans to date.

One danger of uplifting other species is that they may not feel any loyalty or empathy to humans. We may just create competitors who will clash with us in ways that make conflicts between human groups seem tame by comparison. In light of this threat an argument can be made for the idea that uplifting dogs will pose less of a threat to humans than uplifting various primates. Dogs have been bred for tens of thousands of years to form bonds with humans and to feel protective toward humans. It will also eventually be possible to genetically engineer this form of loyalty and empathy toward humans into other uplifted species. But with dogs we will be able to start with a species that already possesses some of the desired qualities that would reduce the danger that another sentient species would become a threat to humans.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 March 10 02:00 PM  Trends, Human Evolution

gmoke said at March 10, 2004 2:47 PM:

David Brin has a series of books about the concept of enhancing animal intelligence called "The Uplift Wars."

back40 said at March 10, 2004 2:59 PM:

Interesting developments Randall. Good topic selection.

One of the issues paleo-anthropologists study is the skeletal changes needed to carry around big brains. Uplift into an existing civilization that doesn't require the level of integration a free living animal would require might simplify the task. Big heads are hard to birth too.

Reason said at March 10, 2004 3:26 PM:

One could also argue convincingly that not uplifting every entity we can do it for is unethical, irrespective of the consequences. We would "uplift" mentally disabled humans if we could, and exactly the same arguments for that apply to all other forms of life capable of technologically-enhanced intelligence. Whether or not they then decide to use their newfound free will to turn against us, we are, I think, obliged to offer them the capability of making that choice.

The Brain said at March 10, 2004 3:52 PM:

Today, we're going to take over the World.

Patri Friedman said at March 10, 2004 5:05 PM:

The comment Whether or not they then decide to use their newfound free will to turn against us, we are, I think, obliged to offer them the capability of making that choice. makes little sense to me. Suppose there is a species which hates humans, and we believe that if we uplift them, there is a 99% chance they will devote their new intelligence to killing people. Uplifting such a species makes as much sense as buying todays most advanced weapons and freely giving them to your enemies. Its suicidal. Why would we have an obligation to help them gain the ability to kill us?

As you move the chance from 99% down towards 0%, of course this argument decreases in weight. But I think it illustrates the foolishness of universal uplifting as an obligation of the human race.

Randall Parker said at March 10, 2004 5:54 PM:


Uplift doesn't really improve an existing species. It effectively makes a new species. So if all the original versions of the original species are replaced by "uplifted" versions then effectively the old species will have been made extinct.

If original versions of the existing species are left to reproduce then all that is accomplished is a forking of a species into two species.

As for a moral obligation to uplift: Why?

As for how many forms of life are capable of technologically enhanced intelligence: It depends on how you define capable. Our very distant ancestors were unicellular organisms. We could retrace all the transformations that led from them to us and go back to some yeast and start applying the same transformations to successive generations of yeast and produce a mammal and then eventually give it a great deal of intelligence.

Patri, I'm with you on this one: Why create threats to our existence? We already face enough threats to our existence as it is and advances in technology are inevitably going to allow new threats to be created. Why actively seek to create specific new threats?

Reason said at March 10, 2004 8:52 PM:

I was actually thinking about uplifting all living individuals within a species (and the future members as well, of course). Something like the "birthing operation" of the Marathon series. From a high level perspective, you add more neurons (or simulated neurons, or something) in a way determined to passage a low-level intelligence to high level intelligence. You can then ask it whether it wants to be intelligent, a member of your society, etc.

If our simulations show that said high-level intelligences would turn against us - which I don't for a moment believe to be any more likely than humans versus humans - then we could uplift them into simulation. Either way, we are ethically obliged to uplift individuals. If we'd do it for a brain damaged or mentally unfit human, we should do it for lesser intelligences.

(Dolphins probably just need a good translator...)

Randall Parker said at March 10, 2004 8:59 PM:

Why are we ethically obliged to uplift individuals?

Also, how can you enhance a brain and then ask it if it wants to be enhanced. The entity that you would ask at that poinnt would have to receive a great deal of education before it was even able to understand the question.

Plus, the thing you'd ask would not have the same motives and values as the pre-enhanced entity and so its answer could not be representative of the pre-enhanced entity's preferences.

Patrick said at March 10, 2004 11:26 PM:

Dogs are loyal... but they are carnivores too. Wolves would be far worse of course. I'm sure the basic instincts must be quite different.

We have no idea what a sentient carnivore is like. It would be worth finding out, but with LOTS of safeguards. We already know that omnivores can be pretty bad.

Reason said at March 10, 2004 11:56 PM:

Randall: the core of my argument is that we are ethically obliged to make efforts to "uplift" damaged humans who are incapable of expressing a preference on their repair (I don't need to explain why this is the case, I hope). In this case it's really restoration to some norm, but from the 20,000ft level it's still enhancing intelligence.

If this holds, then it should also hold for all animals. They have the misfortune to be born as less intelligent entities. And yes, I was assuming any uplifting process includes education, socialization, etc. I was emphasising the technical points that differentiate hardware/wetware uplifting of existing entities from genetic uplifting of future entities - the hardware/wetware approach could be designed to allow reversal. If the entity, which has access to all the old pre-uplift memories, wants to go back, then back they can go. The uplifted self could even be turned on and off at will, or further technical quirks to the scheme. This all seems egalitarian and fair to me...

Blueshift said at March 11, 2004 3:21 AM:

Sorry for the double trackback, MT is acting up on me.

T. J. Madison said at March 11, 2004 5:29 AM:

We're definitely obligated to uplift dogs. We have a long standing treaty with dogs, one that the vast majority of dogs have faithfully observed for perhaps 10,000 years. We also owe them an apology for some of our ill-advised dog breeding programs, like the Maltese for example.

Here's a thought experiment involving the strength of our treaty with the dog world:

Imagine we take a skinhead, a Jew, and a black man, and put them in a room with a man beating a dog. I'm guessing that a few minutes later, a skinhead, a Jew, a black man, and a dog will walk out of the room.

conspirator said at March 12, 2004 4:36 AM:

I liked Brin's first "Uplift" trilogy, but he's always been an optimist. Things go wrong.

Bruce Sterling explored the law of unintended consequences associated with uplift in the short story "Our Neural Chernobyl".

Nancy Lebovitz said at March 12, 2004 10:20 PM:

I'd have thought that one of the big ethical questions is whether we'll treat uplifted non-humans decently. This might even have some bearing on whether the newly intelligent species will treat us decently.

The advantage to having uplifted species is that they'd presumably have a somewhat different take on the universe than humans do--it's like the advantage you get from having a lot of people, only more so.

Randall Parker said at March 12, 2004 10:45 PM:

Nancy, Imagine uplifting a species that is carnivorous and that likes to kill and eat prey. If those instincts are not removed by changing the genetic coding for those instincts at the same time inteligence is boosted then the result is going to be a sentient species that thinks about how much pleasure it would get out of killing and eating humans.

What makes us human is more than our intelligence. Our moral beliefs flow in part from our genetic coding. A different species would likely have differences in moral values so substantial that it would very likely be in conflict with us for a number of reasons. Some species will be far more dangerous than others if uplifted.

Russell Blackford said at March 14, 2004 6:38 PM:

I'm not totally convinced that there is an ethical obligation to "uplift" an intellectually disabled human being who may not be subjectively any happier as a result, cannot understand the process sufficiently to have a preference, and certainly does not have a preference. However, let's concede that there is such an obligation, for the sake of argument.

The thing is, the feeling of having that obligation resides in our wish that other human beings be able to enjoy the full benefits of normal human and social functioning. Rightly or wrongly, we feel that a human being who cannot have these benefits because of sufficiently severe intellectual disability is missing out on important goods that normally "track" being genetically human. A person who is severely intellectually disabled cannot live what we think of as a good life for a human being to live (we all carry around some such concept of an objectively good life for humans). Rightly or wrongly, once again, we feel that this is a situation that is somehow tragic, and cries out to be recified if possible.

However, none of that is the case with, say, a cat. Possessing human-level intelligence, participating as an equal in human society, etc., do not normally track being genetically feline. We don't feel that being a cat of normal intelligence (for a cat) is a matter of tragedy or pathos, or something crying out to be rectified if possible. A cat of normal intelligence for a cat can, a purrrfectly good life for a cat. We don't feel an obligation to ensure that cats can live lives that meet our norms of what counts as a good life for a human being.

conspirator said at March 15, 2004 6:20 AM:

Carnivores with human-level intelligence were just one of the problems described in Sterling's short story (farmers had to "bribe" packs of wolves on a regular basis and racoons were using wampum as a means of exchange). Imagine being held hostage in your home by an infestation of super-intelligent rats (no trap or poisoned bait would work, and they're awake when you're asleep). And Russell, the cats in this story refused to take the intelligence test; they just tortured small animals or sat around and watched television. ;-)

Stefan Jones said at March 16, 2004 10:10 AM:

Way before Brin, Olaf Stapledon wrote a novel about an dog with an artificially enlarged brain:

See my review in the listing.

While I like the Uplift books (ahem, shuffle:, I think Stapledon has the immediate challenge nailed. His "Sirius" had a big brain, and longer lifespan, but no hands or voicebox. He does not have an easy life.

I think it is possible we'll have the ability to make really smart dogs within a decade or so, but in addition to having no voice box or hands, they probably won't have the subtle wiring that lets humans pick up languages. And they'll live horribly short lives. And perhaps have trouble keeping their big brains cool.

If and when those awful problems are overcome, we'll be a multi-species civilization and well, dang, we'll be faced with ethical and social issues that make the fu-furaw over same-sex marriage look utterly tame.

Stefan Jones said at March 16, 2004 2:56 PM:

RE the wisdom of ensmartening carnivores:

Depends on the carnivore, doesn't it?

Given the choice of having a smart (sapient, intelligent as you) animal as a neighbor, or co-worker, which of the following would you prefer?


Even though they're not as easy-going as dogs (who are still more territorial and prone to aggression than humans) you'd have to go with the wolf. They're highly social critters who hunt and raise kids co-operatively. You could probably deal with them, find common cause with them, especially if you're in their percieved in-group. Just don't steal anything from their cubicle.

The others might be utterly obnoxious as people, even the token herbivore and omnivore. Solitary and fiesty.

Nobody U. Know said at March 16, 2004 4:37 PM:

I've got four words for you.

Cats with opposable thumbs.

Be afraid. Be very, very afraid.

Gavin Paddock said at June 3, 2004 2:34 PM:

My girlfriend's cat has opposable thumbs. I've got pictures.

Visitor1 said at September 1, 2004 12:54 AM:

I'm new to this topic and find it fascinating. I get the feeling that genetically enhanced intelligent animals would feel completely detached from our society. The most obvious reason is our built environment. Everything, from door knobs to keyboards we use to type in our computers, things we take for granted, are designed and tailored to us.

How could an intelligent animal like a cat or a horse, so different from us physically, fit into our society? There would be physical barriers which transform into psychological barriers impossible to overcome. The animal, if truly intelligent, would feel out of place and eventually come to realize what it is: a freek of nature. I wouldn't be surprissed if they sink into a deep depression and become suicidal sociopaths. If an animal is to be uplifted for altruist reasons it should be one that has a humanoid shape. I think other animals like Stefan mention above: racoons, wolves, etc. should be "left behind" until a solution to this problem is clear. Just one of many thoughts.

Lucius Severus Pertinax said at March 7, 2005 9:46 PM:

Hot tip: Dont try this on siberian tigers..... can you say....Kzinti? (search Larry Niven if you don't know what i'm talking about)

yer LUNCH monkeyboy!

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