Walking along a path in a drowsy, primeval forest over the weekend, I was overwhelmed by natural beauty. I began thinking about what it might be like to live in such an environment, close to the ground, free of human neuroticism, commodified relationships, an arcane economic system, and all manner of supposedly “modern” human obligations. What would it be like, I wondered, to have, or to acquire an animal consciousness, the consciousness of a raccoon, a skunk, a bear, turtle or orangutan? To live a life relatively free, to participate in an ecologically grounded economy, to escape the plague of gross human nerdification?
When most transhumanists think about the future of human consciousness, they see a future where technology makes it possible for them to transcend the human condition by upgrading the human mind and body. Prospective posthumans see a future where their memory and intelligence are orders of magnitude beyond what a baseline human can imagine, and to transcend is to become something like a god, embodied or disembodied, actualized in a bush robot, a flake of memory diamond, or a chunk of computronium.
But are there not other possibilities? I think so. In fact, these possibilities may be closer to becoming reality than we think. It is easy to imagine, for example, creating a ersatz bigfoot (or Wookie) from a human template. Just a few genes here and there (for langauge, hairiness, musculature, gigantism) would create something any Star Wars fan would recognize as Chewbacca-like (or is it Chewbacca-lite?) Advances in genetic engineering will ensure that such a thing will be possible very soon, probably in as little as 10 years (though only with ethically problematic germline techniques, transforming an adult into a Wookie would likely be far more difficult.)
And in fact, there is already an active debate about whether or not resurrecting Neanderthals would be ethical. The fundamental science behind such a project (sequencing of the neanderthal genome, synthetic biology, and in-vitro fertilization) is well-understood, all that remains are some (significant) technical hurdles, and a raft of moral, political and legal questions.
Further afield, it may be possible, within most of our lifetimes, to upload human consciousness into a machine, and to live any kind of life one might want, including an animal life. Want to live the lifetime of a (virtual) sea turtle, or an orangutan? It may be possible in the coming decades. The idea holds a certain appeal.
Most transhumanist conversations about animals and consciousness involves “uplifting” certain animals: chimpanzees or dolphins could be made more intelligent, for example. As science-fiction writer David Brin suggests, “Imagine dolphin philosophers, bonobo therapists, raven playwrights and poets,” adding, “How lonely, if we turn away without trying.” And of course, this kind of idea makes fertile ground for science-fiction fantasies, too numerous to name here.
1. Thou shalt not alter the consciousness of thy fellow men.
2. Thou shalt not prevent thy fellow man from changing his or her own consciousness.
Two Commandments of the Molecular Age, Timothy Leary
What we may see instead, and in the very near future, is a proliferation of different kinds of consciousness: not just “uplifted” animals, but “downshifted” humans; humans who will seek to let go of some of the more inane aspects of human existence, who seek to take on something akin to orangutan consciousness, or that of a self-aware blue whale, and so on. I have no doubt that there will be a desire for such things, and the possibilities for downshifting will likely be upon us sooner than we think.