Rabbits, robots and resurrection
Riffing with Karnofsky on the value of present and future lives, to celebrate the 50th anniversaries of 'Watership Down', 'Limits to Growth' and the Alcor foundation...
Easter is my favourite time of year, with the blossoming new life and warmer days. The resurrection story is reflected in the natural world, we have a nice long weekend off work, and I don’t mind a chocolate egg or two. Perhaps this is why when I set up a social media profile I chose ‘Easterbunny’ as its token animal spirit.
The Easter Bunny is first mentioned in De ovis paschalibus or 'About Easter eggs' in 1682, as a medieval German tradition of an Easter Hare bringing eggs for children. S/he was brought to America by German migrants, and although modern pagans have claimed that hares were sacred to Ēostre, a Saxon goddess of Spring, there is no evidence for this belief, according to the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore.
When our children were young, we got a pair of rabbits rescued or rather free-cycled from local folk with unwanted litters. As they grew up, we got careless, leaving the hutch unlocked and letting them out to graze, so eventually they hopped off. Though by escaping they risked death from foxes, traffic or myxomatosis caught from wild rabbits, we sentimentally reassured ourselves that they had chosen their freedom.
Anyway, we didn’t really want to own animals, and perhaps we valued the idea of the rabbits’ liberty more than their actual lives. If we hadn’t taken them, they might have found a home with more responsible owners to confine them indoors, or perhaps they would have fared worse, being put down or abused. We will never know, but on reflection, I realise my attitude was influenced heavily by my childhood reading, especially Richard Adams’ 1972 novel Watership Down, which celebrates its 50th anniversary of publication this year.
Warren peace: a brief history of British rabbits
Set in contemporary southern England, the book features a group of rabbits who flee their home warren led by a prophetic vison, cross hostile country and escape various hazards to found and then defend a new warren in the sunlit uplands.
Although the descriptions of the countryside and nature are realistic, the rabbits are recognisably human. They have their own culture, language and epic mythology, with classical and biblical echoes. They also have rather old-fashioned sex roles, even for 1972. As a fable combining elements of Exodus, Aesop, the Aeneid and Animal Farm, Watership Down has been an inspiration for conservation and animal rights.
Crucially, Adams’ rabbits are morally superior to the humans who persecute them, control the countryside and enslave their domestic counterparts. As their leader Hazel says, “Animals don’t behave like men… if they have to fight, they fight; and if they have to kill they kill. But they don’t sit down and set their wits to work to devise ways of spoiling other creatures’ lives and hurting them. They have dignity and animality.”
Out in the real countryside, rabbits were indeed having a tough time. The post-war industrialisation of agriculture and assaults on nature were brought to public attention by books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. But while rabbits are widely considered a quintessentially English species, they are relatively recent immigrants, at least in modern times.
European rabbits of the species Oryctolagus cuniculus may have been widespread before the last Ice Age, when the advancing glaciers pushed them into the Iberian peninsula, modern Spain and Portugal. Domesticated by the Romans, rabbits weren’t introduced to Britain until after the Norman conquest. According to Oliver Rackham’s History of the Countryside, these exotic imports were ill-adapted to northern climes, needing bedding in winter and human help to dig burrows. Medieval abbeys and baronial estates established large enclosed warrens to breed rabbits for their meat and fur, which were for centuries an expensive luxury.
500 years of natural selection made the rabbits hardier and more resourceful. By the late 18th Century there were large commercial warrens and lots of small breeders all over the British Isles, and populations of escaped rabbits spread widely. They breed faster than the native hares, and are more social, digging extensive warrens. Chomping on the vegetables in newly-enclosed fields, they came to be regarded as pests, although still appreciated as free food by rural folk. Rabbits were also exported to the USA, Australia and New Zealand, where their numbers exploded to the detriment of native wildlife.
As the populations of feral rabbits grew, so did human hostility, and by World War 2, there were systematic efforts to control their numbers. In the 1950s, through a mixture of accident and intention, the viral disease myxomatosis was unleashed, almost entirely wiping out rabbit populations, first in Australia and then in Europe. Crossing the channel in 1953, the disease spread from Kent to kill 99% of all rabbits infected within just a couple of years.
While farmers rejoiced, it proved disastrous for ecosystems that had come to depend on the rabbit, which had replaced extinct native herbivores as a keystone species. Over the past 50 years, populations have recovered slowly, and in some countries like their native Spain, they are facing severe pressure from hunting as well as new diseases like the rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus, with ebola-like symptoms, that kills up to 90% of rabbits it infects. A March 2022 feature in New Scientist details these new threats, with truly terrible puns far worse than my subheads.
So what value should we place on a rabbit’s life? This will depend on:
1. Who you are - a medieval monk, a poacher, a market gardener, a conservationist, an animal rights activist, a Buddhist or a 6-year old pet owner?
2. Who the rabbit is –an exotic breed, a tasty meal, a feral diseased pest, or an anthropomorphised epic hero?
3. How many rabbits you think there should be and where?
To explore the first two questions, we will shortly hop over the garden wall to conduct a daring raid on farmer Karnofsky’s utilitarian cabbage patch. But I was trained as an ecologist not a philosopher, so let’s quickly round up the third point first…
Too many bunnies? Malthus bites back
What’s the optimum number of rabbits for the Berkshire Downs today? How about all of Great Britain, or Australia? I’m sitting on the fence for now, but as we shall see, it’s far from rabbit-proof.
One of our tutors at uni was the ‘great tit man’ and ecologist John Krebs, now Baron of Wytham (the wood and farmland research site near Oxford used by generations of students) and probably best known as former chair of the Food Standards Agency.
I still have his textbook An Introduction to Behavioural Ecology, full of examples and graphs on predator-prey interactions and the theory of ‘evolutionary arms races’ developed by Krebs and Richard Dawkins to explain how such natural enemies can continue to coexist in the same habitat without either going extinct. One hypothesis posits the ‘life-dinner’ principle to explain how the prey are always ahead in an evolutionary arms race:
“…rabbits run faster than foxes, because the rabbit is running for its life, while the fox is only running for its dinner… A fox may reproduce after losing a race against a rabbit. No rabbit has ever reproduced after losing a race against a fox.” (2nd Ed p91)
Rabbits also tend to be ‘R-selected’ animals, with rapid reproduction rates and high mortality, subject to periodic crashes of population due to disease or habitat loss. Despite popular ideas of ‘harmony of nature’, there is never a stable equilibrium. So there is no optimum number of rabbits in a given habitat. This would have come as no surprise to Thomas Malthus, the 18th Century priest and godfather of demography, doom-mongery and conservative conventional wisdom about the profligacy of the poor.
In the famous Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus wrote: "The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man." He saw population growth as inevitable whenever conditions improved, inevitably bringing hardship, want, famine and disease in its wake. In other words humans were too much like rabbits.
Meanwhile, back in 1972, another influential work was galvanising environmentalists. The Limits to Growth report, co-authored by the pastorally-named pairing Donella and Dennis Meadows with a team of 15 other researchers, used the World3 computer model to simulate the consequence of interactions between the earth and human systems. It concluded that without substantial changes in global resource consumption, "the most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity".
Limits to Growth was the first report published by the Club of Rome, a think tank of the great and good founded in 1968 by Aurelio Peccei, an Italian industrialist. The Club wasn’t as fun as it sounds, its vision set out in a snappy manifesto: The Predicament of Mankind; Quest for Structured Responses to Growing Worldwide Complexities and Uncertainties: A PROPOSAL. This stated that threats including environmental deterioration, poverty, endemic ill-health and urban blight cannot be solved in isolation as all are interrelated.
The Predicament intones: "It is this generalized meta-problem (or meta-system of problems) which we have called and shall continue to call the "problematic" that inheres in our situation." Put simply, the earth’s resources are limited, and that there are too many humans consuming too many of them too quickly.
Like Malthus with a super-computer, Limits to Growth was hugely influential, but right from the start it attracted criticism for its simplistic economic and ecological models. These contained many dubious approximations, and turned out to be very sensitive to small variations in a few unduly pessimistic key assumptions. Limits was later updated with more robust models, and the latest Limits to Growth+50: Global equity for a healthy planet was published in February to celebrate its 50th anniversary.
Ironically, the authors also failed to draw lessons from the advances in processing power, and in technology in general, that made their model possible. The impacts of the Green Revolution, Moore’s Law and global capitalism had only got started in 1972. Since then, the world’s population has not only doubled from 4 to 8 billion people, but most of us are living much longer, and far fewer are starving or in absolute poverty. Indeed a bigger issue is obesity and the chronic conditions of urban industrial society.
Of course, this has come with huge costs too to natural resources and wildlife, and the current climate crisis is a symptom. There may well be limits to growth, but we haven’t reached them yet. The transition to sustainable energy and manufacture offers hope that technology may come to the rescue. There is a more optimistic stream of thought that envisages no constraint on human growth, as we develop radical solutions to all the "problematic". In this new ‘R-selected’ technological utopia, the sky is no longer the limit.
Abundant lives: valuing people now and in future
Actually, this post isn’t about rabbits, and I didn’t intend to mention them at all until I got distracted by one on my Easter Monday cycle ride. It’s about humans, and how we can value the lives of people alive today, compared with those who may exist in future. It’s also about how we define and count those people, and whether all lives are of equal value or some more equal than others.
This foray was inspired by Holden Karnofsky’s blog post from 29 March on whether “extra lives lived” are as good as “deaths prevented”. These are vast ethical fields, and if you are an actual philosopher, feel free to catch me if you can!
I suggest you listen to the audio version, in which Holden himself voices the role of ‘Utilitarian Holden’ while his wife Daniela plays ‘Non-Utilitarian Holden’. They both talk really fast, but it’s a fun debate with some strong points on both sides, though as in Hazel’s warren, it’s definitely daddy rabbit calling the shots. So with apologies to both Karnofskies for being facile, but it seems to me that the steel-bunny Utilitarian position is essentially:
1) To be effective altruists, we should act to maximise benefits to all people
2) All people includes those who haven’t yet been born, ie future lives
3) Since humanity has only just got started, 99.999999…% of people who will ever live are not yet born
4) Unless the species goes extinct, in which case utility drops to zero for the rest of time
5) So it’s worth investing as much as possible in minimising the risk of that happening
6) And then in anything that will facilitate for the greatest good for the greatest number
7) Oh, and it’s better to be alive and suffering, than never to have been born
8) So the more the merrier, even if that means a lower quality of life for some or all people.
Daniela as the slightly straw-bunny ‘Non-Utilitarian Holden’ makes the obvious point that people who don’t exist yet can’t be said to benefit in any real sense, because… well, they don’t exist. To which the UH bunny responds that is so unfair to the unborn, and that when they are eventually born in their billion billions, they’ll be grateful to their altruistic ancestors who made their existence possible. So that’s nice.
But you can never please everyone. The trade-offs can be fiendishly complex, with scenarios liable to breed like bunnies. Sticking to ‘normal’ humans for now, past and present, as an effective altruist, should I invest in:
a) AI alignment (perhaps MIRI or Open AI), that will reduce the risk of a super-intelligent AI turning us all into paperclips for our own good, thus ensuring a future for humanity;
b) Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, who spend billions tackling diseases of the poor living today, so that everyone can enjoy longer healthier lives;
c) Climate Eco-solutions, that I just made up, but can reverse global heating and species loss, and provide an ideal habitat for life in a new global Garden of Eden;
d) Deep Space Colony generation starships, that will spread humanity to the farthest reaches of the galaxy, freeing us of our reliance on Earth’s limited resources?
All of these offer value to a utilitarian investor, but the devil is very much in the detail. For example, what if I told you that c) is only feasible for half the current human population on earth, and could only be achieved within the next two years? But don’t worry about unfair selection processes; I’ve set up the Thanos Foundation to randomly choose who will live.
Or what if d) starships are owned by Spectre Enterprises and a ticket costs $5m for economy freezer and $10m for club class – in which you get woken up to view passing nebulae and served cocktails by a biddable android slave? The future is an unpredictable place, and like rabbit populations, the value of your shares can go into down – even into sudden and uncontrollable decline – as well as up.
Staying alive: trolling the trolley problems
Such thought experiments are the stuff of sci-fi, but they may also be framed as elaborate examples of trolley problems. These ethical dilemmas involving the sacrifice of the few for the many, were originally devised in 1967 by virtue ethicist Philippa Foot. For me, there are several problems with trolley problems, and the three biggest are about information, agency and defining optimal outcomes.
The classic problem – do you switch the points on a railway to kill someone on the track to save the lives of several other people - assumes you the actor have perfect information, and also that you can reliably predict the exact outcome of two different courses of action. It also assumes that you are the unlucky person with your hands on the levers of power.
So you are omniscient, and though not exactly omnipotent, as your choice is constrained to two alternatives, you are the sole agent. It is you and only you who gets to choose the fate of everyone else in the scenario - and what’s more, you have to choose. It is widely accepted by trolley theorists that these are mere thought experiments for virtuous outcome optimisers. So this is mind gym for effective altruists, but I’m not sure that God’s eye thinking is such a healthy habit to get into.
Out there in reality, information is incomplete, the future can rarely be predicted with anything approaching certainty, or even probabilities forecast. Plus, as people we’re probably passengers in the out-of-control train rather than the poor mug in the signal box. Or as rabbits we’re cowering on the track mesmerised by the onrushing engine, and the best we can do is leap out of the way.
Indeed, ‘avoid potentially lethal encounters’ or ‘keep off the railway’ may be a far better rule of thumb than ‘kill one fellow creature to save five others’. Perhaps that’s why heroes in real life as in fiction almost never presume to make such sacrifices of others, and those who do often miscalculate. I mean, could you really push someone off a bridge with the accuracy required to divert an oncoming train?
The problems also assume there is a single optimal outcome. In her 2019 book Fellow Creatures: Our Obligations to the Other Animals, Christine Korsgaard suggests that rather view something, even life, as absolutely good or bad, it has to be good or bad for someone. Drawing on the work of Kant and Aristotle, she argues that humans have a duty to value our fellow creatures not as tools or meat, but as sentient beings capable of consciousness and able to have lives that are good or bad for them.
This is "tethered value", that is conditional on some valuer. Like the dog in the farmyard from which Hazel liberated the doe rabbits, the value is tied to the viewpoint of the actors, or in this case the organisms involved. For the farmer and his dog, the only good wild rabbit is a dead rabbit, especially if there’s a bit of meat on it; from Hazel’s perspective, humans are the threat not only to rabbitkind, but to all civilised wildlife. There may be no optimal solution in such a conflict, only an arms race, an uneasy coexistence with the fugitives hiding out in their woods and warrens.
For Korsgaard, it doesn’t make much sense to talk about the value of potential people, or of unborn rabbits without specifying who is valuing whom. We are all tethered in one way or another, so effective altruists need to be quite rigorous about what and whose goods they are attempting to maximise.
But that’s only the start of the journey, so let’s venture a little further down the rabbit hole…
Of bunnies and bugs: who qualifies as people?
In the discussion, Karnofsky cites his previous blog on the need to future-proof our ethics to avoid the absurd prejudices of the past (racism, homophobia, etc) but also our present biases, in order to be properly ‘other-focused’. So what might these biases be? Hard to say if they really are unconscious, but I guess they might include speciesism, ‘organicism’ and how about ‘aliveism’?
And who are these ‘others’ we are focused on? Are they mortal humans like us, or can we be more inclusive about what we mean by ‘people’ here?
Channelling the spirit of mythical rabbit hero El-ahrairah talking to Lord Frith, I’d like to modestly propose three corollary statements for UH’s consideration:
Rabbits are people too, and so are all other life forms – this category may include mosses, mosquitoes and bacteria, possibly even some ambitious viruses?
Artificial life is alive, and therefore people – this may include AIs, robots, molecular nanobots, computer programs and people ‘downloaded’ into alternative hardware, even multiple copies of the same personality, however unpleasant?
People resurrected from the dead also qualify – if future technology enables the resurrection of frozen heads from cryo-tanks or mammoths from fragments of DNA, shouldn’t they be treated as people?
Widening the scope of who counts as people has clear benefits for a utilitarian. Most obviously, it multiplies by many orders of magnitude the great numbers for whom we can do good. There are currently billions of bacteria for every human, and we should feel good that we are keeping so many of them alive and well simply by the act of being alive ourselves. Even after death, we can support diverse ecosystems of decomposers. As the Beatles sang, life flows on within you and without you.
It also lowers the bar of what level of goods to provide. Plankton are far lower-maintenance and easier to satisfy than most people, let alone Parisian heiresses. So what about artificial life? Are the replicants in Blade Runner entitled to live longer than four years, even if they could ask nicely? And how about their less demanding nanobot cousins, or human brains downloaded onto hard drives or uploaded into the Cloud, who presumably can be kept alive as long as the power stays running?
On Easter Sunday, after the usual religious and family fun, I snuggled up in the burrow to re-read Ed Regis’ 1990 classic Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition about the visionaries then pioneering space travel, cryonics, nanotechnology and other progressive pursuits.
Adrift on a cloud of futurist nostalgia, I revisited the first conference on Artificial Life at Los Alamos in 1987 at which the clunky self-replicating computer programs on display were declared to be indistinguishable from life itself. Our departmental guru Richard Dawkins, coiner of selfish genes and memes, was there presenting his new ‘biomorph’ program. So was UCLA developer Dave Jefferson with his ‘programinals’ – replicating robot rabbits and foxes that played out their own brutish and usually short predator-prey cycles in silico. This later evolved into the Genesys system, built by the UCLA Artificial Life group to simulate various living processes.
So, we’ve expanded the definition of ‘people’ to include all present and future life forms, including robots of all shapes and sizes and computer programs. But what about dead people? Don’t the deceased also have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in our future utopia?
Back to life, back to reality?
Easter is a time to celebrate the resurrection. The artist Stanley Spencer, a devout Christian, in 1924 he started work on a huge canvas that took not 3 days but 3 years to complete. The Resurrection, Cookham depicts people rising from their graves in the lovely local village cemetery. Unblemished by decay and clad in remarkably clean gowns, they blink in the light, as if waking after a teatime snooze.
Much of the Great Mambo Chicken book is about the founders of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, established in 1972 (again!) in Arizona with a mission to save and extend lives using cryonics. Alcor at 50 is still going strong, with over 1,400 members, 190 of whom are currently ‘patients’ resident in its cryo-tanks or dewars.
The patients are not currently alive, as it is illegal to freeze people to -90C unless they have been officially declared dead. However, they were (or will have been) all hopeful that one day, medical science will have advanced sufficiently to defrost them, cure them of whatever killed them and even give them more youthful bodies. Many of the patients are missing their original bodies, both because it is much cheaper and more economical to have only one’s head frozen, and they reason(ed) that if medical science is that advanced, they won’t be needing their mostly decrepit old bodies anyway.
In 2008, science writer Wendy Grossman visited both Alcor and Michigan-based Cryonics Institute and wrote about it in The Guardian. She noted many technical advances in cryo-preservation but also obstacles to eventual resuscitation. She quotes Tanya Jones, director of operations at Alcor, as saying: “If we succeed in our mission, cryonics will become a process carried out in hospitals by medical staff... [given the current rate of medical progress and research into nanotechnology] if we haven't done it in 100 years, it's not going to work."
Another question is why would people in future, however grateful, want to mess around defrosting and reviving a bunch of frozen heads, especially if they needed a lot of nanobot repair work first? And if we can live perfectly well without our decrepit old bodies, what about our squishy brains, prone as they are to tumours, amyloids, Alzheimer’s and other diseases?
Robot researcher and futurist Hans Moravec’s book Mind Children predicted that artificial life will take off in 2030-40. He even proposed several mechanisms by which all the activity of a living brain could be translated into a computer, at least in theory:
“You’ve just been wheeled into the operating room. A robot brain surgeon is in attendance. By your side is a computer waiting to become a human equivalent, lacking only a programme to run.”
After a successful operation, the discarded ‘wetware’ of your body can be safely discarded, as with the cybermen in ‘Doctor Who’.
But of course you wouldn’t want only one copy of your downloaded essence – you’d need lots of copies to ensure they didn’t get degraded or accidentally switched off, and to upload to successive generations of hardware and upgraded operating systems. Moravec suggested the preferred option might be a ‘bush robot’, with billions of detachable sensory and motor nano-modules like fungal mycelia, all controlled by the central ‘human’ consciousness. What could possibly go wrong?
He also proposed that primitive tribes or those humans who preferred to remain as ‘organics’ could have their own reservations. They would be so out-evolved by the new race of technologically advanced androids and distributed copies of uploaded personalities as to be endangered species. They would be like rabbits in a petting zoo, while our transhuman descendents (or perhaps some of us will be among them) beam out on encoded lasers to colonise the galaxy.
Oh brave new world, that hath such creatures, innit!
It’s lovely to spend a couple of days in the Easter sunshine contemplating the prospect of resurrection and ascension to come. And if the price comes down, perhaps we might even apply for Alcor membership. It seems they even do pets, so there’s hope for at least a few bunnies. In the meantime, let’s keep trying to be kind to our fellow creatures, and I’ve got kits to feed so it’s back to the cabbage patch!
“Sitting quietly doing nothing, spring comes and the grass grows by itself”